Sexually Transmitted Diseases: the Myths and Risks

Truth and Fiction When It Comes to STDs

Sexually transmitted diseases can be caused by a variety of viruses, bacteria, and parasites and can be transmitted through sexual behaviors such as unprotected vaginal, anal and/or oral intercourse.

The United States has the highest rate of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) of any industrialized nation with about 19 million Americans contracting an STD each year. Statistics predict that one in every two Americans will catch at least one sexually transmitted disease in their lifetime.

Proper sex education and being well informed of STD risks can help prevent some of these infections. Although there is a lot of accurate STD information available, there are unfortunately a number of myths as well. In fact, many people are surprised to hear that some of what they had believed about STDs is fiction. How many of these myths have you heard, and what is the truth instead?

Myth #1: You Cannot Get a Sexually Transmitted Disease From Skin-to-Skin Contact

man and woman lying together on a bed
What are the most common myths about sexually transmitted diseases?. PeopleImages/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Some people believe that as long as you are not having sex, you cannot catch an STD. This is simply not the case.

Some sexually transmitted diseases, such as pubic lice (crabs) and scabies can be easily passed from partner to partner just through skin-to-skin contact.

Other STDs can be passed through genital contact even without intercourse.

To best protect yourself, it is important to understand the different ways that STDs can be transmitted.

Myth #2: The Birth Control Pill Provides STD Protection

Woman taking contraceptive pill
Birth control pills are not an effective way to avoid STDs. IAN HOOTON/SPL/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

It is important to realize that protecting against pregnancy and protecting against a sexually transmitted infection is not the same thing.

Many hormonal contraceptives may be very effective at lowering your chances of getting pregnant, but these birth control methods do not prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Because the pill does not stop the sharing of bodily fluids during sex, it does not offer any STD protection.

Myth #3: The Greatest STD Risk Is From Oral Sex

Young couple in bed, woman lying on back with man above
What type of sex (oral, vaginal, or anal) is most likely to transmit STDS?. Matt Dutile/Image Source/Getty Images

Although many teens do not realize that sexually transmitted diseases can be caught during oral sex, the CDC and many health professionals consider unprotected anal sex to have the highest STD risk rate.

This is because the tissues around the anus are very fragile and small tears (called fissures) commonly occur after having anal intercourse or after using sex toys that have been inserted into the anus.

The best way to prevent STDs during anal sex is by using condoms. You also may want to make sure that all of your sex toys are sanitized and not shared with others.

That said, oral sex can clearly lead to STDs and has been a mode of transmission for infections such as HIV, herpes, HPV, gonorrhea, syphilis, and more. If you want to protect yourself from STDs during oral sex, dental dams can be used as an effective barrier.

    Myth #4: STDs Will Eventually Go Away on Their Own

    Woman with cell phone in bed with dog
    If left untreated, many STDs can lead to complications. Hero Images/Getty Images

    Unfortunately, the myth that STDs will go away without treatment is thought to be at least partially responsible for chronic pelvic pain and infertility in many women. By the time these conditions are diagnosed, the damage (due to an untreated STD in many cases) has already been done.

    Chlamydia is the most commonly reported sexually transmitted disease, followed by gonorrhea, and then syphilis. Since 2001, chlamydia rates have been steadily increasing each year.

    STDs like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are caused by bacteria, so they need to be treated with antibiotics in order to be cured.

    Very often, women who have these sexually transmitted diseases will not have any symptoms, so they might not even know they have been infected. This is why STD testing is so important.

    Although bacterial STDs can be easily treated with antibiotics, they can cause long-term problems such as pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility if left untreated. Several untreated STDs can also lead to complications of pregnancy.

    Myth #5: Two Condoms Are Better Than One at Lowering STD Risk

    Couple with a condom
    Two condoms are not better than one. Image Source/Getty Images

    Logically, one may assume that using two condoms will provide better STD protection than one but, in reality, this is not the case.

    Doctors and condom manufacturers advise that unnecessary friction can be caused between two condoms during sexual activity and this increases the chances that either one or both of the condoms can break—leaving you at higher risk for both contracting a sexually transmitted disease and getting pregnant.

    This is the case for the use of two male condoms or using both a male and a female condom. Bottom line: "double-bagging" condoms is a no-no.

      Myth #6: You Can Only Contract Herpes if Your Partner Is Having an Outbreak

      Young man lying in bed, young woman kneeling on bed in foreground
      Due to asymptomatic shedding, genital herpes may be transmitted even if there are not obvious signs of an outbreak. Chris Black/Stone/Getty Images

      Genital herpes is a common, recurrent, viral sexually transmitted disease characterized by sores on the mouth or genitals and can be transmitted even when an outbreak isn't present.

      During inactive periods (when no sores are present), the virus cannot be transmitted to another person. Yet this can be tricky since the herpes virus, at various times (unknown to the person infected with it,) often begins to multiply again without causing symptoms or sores (this is referred to as asymptomatic shedding.)

      During this shedding or when open sores are present, the virus can infect other people during any type of sexual contact or kissing. Currently, there is no cure for herpes, though medications may be used to reduce symptoms or reduce the number of outbreaks.

      Myth #7: Heterosexual Men Cannot Become Infected with HIV

      Passionate couple having fun in bed
      HIV can be transmitted between anyone who has sex regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Seb Oliver/Image Source/Getty Images

      Any person can catch HIV if they engage in unprotected sexual behavior with an infected partner whether male or female.

      HlV does not discriminate based on sexual orientation. Gay or straight men and women can contract HIV.

      Females (or those who engage in anal sex) may be at the greatest risk of becoming infected with HIV or another sexually transmitted disease because the cervix (or anus) is more vulnerable to certain sexually transmitted organisms.

      Plus, vaginal tissue or anal tissue is more likely to tear during sexual activity making it easier for STDs of HIV to enter the bloodstream.

      In addition, having another type of STD can increase your chance of contracting HIV.

      Myth #8: If You Have Sex in a Pool or Hot Tub, the Chlorine Will Kill Any STDs

      Male couple in pool hugging and smiling
      The chlorine in pools and hot tubs does not eliminate your risk of STDs from underwater sex. Tim Kitchen/The Image Bank/Getty Images

      The idea behind the myth about sex and getting pregnant underwater in pools or hot tubs is that if you are having sex in chlorinated water, the chemical will kill the sperm.

      Although chlorine can act as a spermicide, its effectiveness depends on how heavily chlorinated the water is. Even if there is a lot of chlorine present, it is unlikely that enough of the chlorine would reach deep enough inside a woman's vagina in order to kill the sperm which ​have been ejaculated into it.

      Water containing chlorine or even hot water (like in hot tubs) does not prevent the transmission of STDs. In fact, the risk of infection or irritation may become greater when the water contains salt, chlorine, or bacteria as these can be forced into the vagina by the thrusting motion during underwater sex.

      Having sex in the water also could increase a woman’s chances of developing a urinary tract infection and/or a yeast infection. Female condoms are the most effective way to prevent STDs while having sex in the water but are not 100 percent effective.

      Male condoms can be effective but may be difficult to use properly in the water. If relying on male condoms, it is best that you put the condom on while you're out of the water and double-check to make sure it stays on during underwater sex.

      Myth #9: Once You Have an STD, You Are Less Likely to Contract Another One

      Teenage girl discussing birth control pills with gynecologist
      Having one STD actually increases your risk of contracting another. PhotoAlto/Eric Audras/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

      Unlike some infections, for example, chicken pox, being infected with a sexually transmitted disease does not lower your chances of catching another one.

      In fact, a person with one STD is actually more susceptible to getting another one. This is because it is easier for a different disease-causing microorganism to infect skin that is already inflamed, torn, blistered or irritated. It also goes without saying that lifestyle practices that lead to one STD could also lead to another.

      Myth #10: If You Don't Have a Condom, Use Plastic Wrap

      Condom. close-up
      Plastic wrap should not be substitued if you run out of condoms. BSIP/UIG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

      The use of plastic wrap instead of a condom is a huge myth, with far too many people believing that plastic wrap (baggies or balloons) can prevent sexually transmitted diseases if there are no condoms around.

      These household items do not fit well, so they can easily come off during sex. Since it is not designed to withstand the friction of sexual activity, plastic wrap also can be easily torn.

      Condoms are specifically made to offer a good fit (as there are many types and sizes of condoms for this reason) and they are thoroughly tested for maximum effectiveness.

      So, if you are not using a latex, polyisoprene (SKYN non-latex condoms) or polyurethane condom, you may be increasing your STD risk. In addition to plastic wrap, keep in mind that natural (lambskin) condoms also are ineffective in protecting against sexually transmitted diseases. These condom types have small pores that can allow STD pathogens to get through. Keep in mind that the majority of organisms that cause sexually transmitted disease are much smaller than sperm.

      Bottom Line on Myths About Sexually Transmitted Diseases

      As noted above, there is an abundance of myths regarding the risk of contracting STDs. This is concerning in that these diseases are extremely common and can result in long-term problems ranging from infertility to pregnancy complications. If you're concerned that you may have been exposed to an STD, talk to your doctor about STD testing, keeping in mind that even if you don't have any symptoms, some of these diseases can cause long-term problems.

      Sources:

      Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STDs and HIV – CDC Fact Sheet. Updated 11/17/15. https://www.cdc.gov/std/hiv/stdfact-std-hiv-detailed.htm

      Cunningham, F. Gary., and John Whitridge Williams. Williams Obstetrics. New York: McGraw-Hill Education Medical, 2014. Print.

      Unemo, M., Bradshaw, C., Hocking, J. et al. Sexually Transmitted Infections: Challenges Ahead. Lancet Infectious Diseases. 2017. 17(8):e235-e279.

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