Clients and health care workers may believe or want more information about the following statements about sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Some of the statements are true, and some are false. Each statement is followed by the term MYTH or FACT, depending on whether it is false or true, and by a brief explanation.
- A man cannot transmit an STI if he withdraws before ejaculation.—MYTH
Withdrawal does not eliminate the risk of STIs. Pre-ejaculatory fluid from the penis can contain infectious organisms, and organisms on the skin of a man’s genitals can be transmitted to another person.
- It is possible to get an STI from having oral sex.—FACT
The person performing and the person receiving oral sex are at different levels of risk. The person receiving oral sex is at risk only if his or her partner has an open sore or ulcer in the mouth or on the face. The person performing oral sex is at high risk if he or she has an open sore or ulcer on the lips or face or if he or she has ejaculate or vaginal fluids in the mouth. To protect against STIs, an individual should always use a latex or plastic barrier, such as a male condom, female condom, or dental dam, when having oral sex.
- A monogamous person cannot contract an STI.—MYTH
Individuals who are faithful to their partner may still be at risk for STIs if their partner engages in sexual activity with other people. In addition, individuals who are currently monogamous with their partner may have contracted an STI from someone else in the past; therefore, they may have an STI without knowing it and/or without telling their current partner.
- If you have an STI once, you become immune to it and cannot get it again.—MYTH
Contracting an STI does not make a person immune to future infections. If a person is treated and cured but his or her partner(s) is not treated, the cured person can get the infection again. The cured person can also get the infection from another partner. Repeat infections can put people at risk for damage to the genital tract (e.g., scarred fallopian tubes) or chronic infection (e.g., chronic pelvic inflammatory disease [PID]).
- You can become infected with more than one STI at a time.—FACT
A person can have more than one STI at the same time. For example, more and more people are now contracting chlamydia and gonorrhea together.
- You cannot contract AIDS by living in the same house as someone who has the disease.—FACT
HIV, the infection that causes AIDS, is transmitted through exposure to infected blood and other infected body secretions. Living in the same house with someone who is HIV-infected does not put those in contact with him or her at risk unless they share items that have been exposed to the infected person’s blood or genital secretions (e.g., through the use of shared toothbrushes, razors, or douching equipment).
- You can always tell if someone has an STI by his or her appearance.—MYTH
Sometimes, STIs produce no symptoms or no visible symptoms. In fact, many people have STIs for long periods of time without knowing that they are infected. In addition, no type of person is immune from STIs. People of different races, sexes, religions, socioeconomic classes, and sexual orientations all contract STIs.
- Condoms reduce the risk of contracting STIs, including HIV.—FACT
After abstinence, latex condoms are the most effective way to prevent STIs, including HIV infection. However, latex condoms are not 100% effective. Some groups have reported inaccurate research suggesting that HIV can pass through latex condoms, but this is not true. In fact, laboratory tests show that no STI, including HIV, can penetrate latex condoms.
SOURCE: Closing the condom gap. 1999. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Population Reports, series H, no. 9, April.
- A person infected with an STI has a higher risk of contracting HIV.—FACT
Both ulcerative STIs (those that cause sores) and nonulcerative STIs increase the risk for transmitting and contracting HIV. Ulcerative STIs increase the risk for HIV infection because the ulcers provide easy entry into the body via the HIV virus. Nonulcerative STIs may enhance HIV transmission for two reasons: They increase the number of white blood cells in the genital tract, and genital inflammation may cause microscopic cuts that can allow the HIV virus to enter the body.
- STIs are a new medical problem.—MYTH
STIs have existed since the beginning of recorded history. Evidence of medical damage caused by STIs appears in ancient writings, art, and skeletal remains.
- Herbal treatments are effective in curing STIs.—MYTH
Antibiotics are the only proven effective treatment for bacterial STIs, which include chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Currently, no cure exists for viral STIs, which include genital warts, hepatitis, herpes, and HIV. Often, clients who receive STI care from nonmedical personnel believe that their STI has been treated, but this is not so. This misconception prevents them from getting adequate treatment, which puts their health and the health of their partner(s) at great risk.
- People usually know that they have an STI within two to five days of being infected.—MYTH
Many people never have symptoms, and others may not have symptoms for weeks or years after being infected.
- Abstinence is the only 100% effective safeguard against the spread of STIs.—FACT
Abstinence from sex is the best way to prevent the spread of STIs. However, latex condoms are the next best option. When used consistently and correctly, these condoms prevent the transmission of STIs very effectively.
- It is possible to get some STIs from kissing.—FACT
It is rare but possible to get syphilis through kissing if the infected person has chancres (small sores) in or around the mouth. Kissing can also spread the herpes virus.
- Youth are particularly vulnerable to STIs.—FACT
STIs are disproportionately higher among young people than adults for both biological and behavioral reasons. The highest reported cases of STIs are among young people (ages 15 to 24). In developed countries, two-thirds of all reported cases of STIs occur among those under age 25.
SOURCE: Bond, K., 2001. Trends in Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health. Paper read at the NGO Networks for Health Asia Regional Capacity Seminar on Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health Programming, August 26; PHN Center FOCUS on Young Adults project, 2000.
- Anal sex is the riskiest form of sexual contact.—FACT
Anal intercourse carries a higher risk of HIV transmission than other types of sexual contact. During anal sex, the penis can tear the mucous membrane of the anus, which provides the virus with an entry point into the bloodstream
- Special medicines can cure HIV infection.—MYTH
Currently, there is no cure or vaccine for HIV infection. Some drugs can slow down the production of the virus in an infected person, but these drugs are expensive and difficult to access.
- HIV is a disease that affects only sex workers and homosexual-MYTH
Anyone can become infected with HIV. A person’s risk for HIV is not related to the type of person he or she is, but rather to the behavior he or she engages in.
- HIV can be transmitted from one person to another when sharing needles for drugs. —FACT
Sharing needles during injectable drug use carries a very high risk of HIV transmission. Infected blood is easily passed from one person to another via an infected needle or other equipment used to prepare or inject drugs.
- A man can be cured of HIV by having sex with a girl who is a virgin.—MYTH
Some people believe this misconception, but it is not true. Virgins do not have any power to heal HIV-infected individuals. There is no way to cure HIV once a person is infected.