When was the last time you were screened for sexually transmitted infections? If you can’t remember, it has been too long. Regardless of your age, gender identity, or sexual orientation if you are sexually active, you should be getting tested regularly. Regularly means every three months if you have multiple partners or twice a year if you’re in a monogamous relationship. It is especially important to get frequent STD checkups if you’ve had unprotected sex. And YES, you should still be getting tested even if you are in a committed monogamous relationship. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but a relationship does not always protect you from STDs.
— It is especially important to get frequent STD checkups if you’ve had unprotected sex.
In the age of Tinder hookups, vigilance about testing and safer sex may not be on everyone’s mind. There was a time when you couldn’t walk down the street without passing by billboards and bus signs reminding you to get tested and telling you where to get free condoms and dental dams. I don’t recall seeing much, if any, of this signage anymore. One reason may be due to the advances in HIV treatment. Since antiretroviral drugs and preventative medications like PrEP are more easily accessible, some of the fear-based advertising and public service announcements have disappeared from sight and this has not been a good thing. As odd as it is to say, HIV isn’t the biggest problem right now. The new epidemic is syphilis.
Syphilis is an STD that could be considered a silent killer since you can be infected and have no signs or symptoms for years. Early signs in primary syphilis include swollen lymph nodes in your groin and the appearance of a painless sore called a chancre – this is where the infection enters your body. If you figure out you’ve been infected this early on, fantastic! See a doctor and get treated right away. Unfortunately, sneaky syphilis doesn’t always want to be found out. The chancre can be hiding deep inside your rectum or vagina and you’ll never even know!
About three to six weeks later when your chancre is healed and gone, your syphilis moves into the secondary stage. You may notice a rash, fever, hair loss, weight loss, and fatigue. You may also have more sores in your mouth, anus, or vagina. These symptoms can come and go for a year and even if they disappear, you still aren’t getting better and you are definitely still able to pass the infection on to your sexual partner(s). For some people, the disease enters the latent stage where it can lay dormant and symptom-free for years, but that is only until you enter the tertiary stage, which can cause things like a stroke, an aneurysm, or heart disease. Pregnant mothers can even pass syphilis on to their babies causing newborns to have an enlarged liver, neurological problems and bone abnormalities.
–The good news is that there are several free or very affordable ways to get tested and then get treated.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the overwhelming majority of syphilis is found among men, and the majority of those infected are sexually active with other men. An unusually high spike in the number of stillbirths in the past year was another tip off to the increased incidence of syphilis infections. There was also an increase in the incidence of diagnosis by 76% from 2016 to 2017. Gonorrhea diagnosis increased 67% overall, and chlamydia has increased by 45% among 15-24-year-old women. The World Health Organization has also reported new drug-resistant strains of gonorrhea that they are referring to as ‘super-gonorrhea’ in the United Kingdom. In a stark contrast, the incidence of HIV infection has decreased by 8% from 2010 to 2015. Regardless of the declining numbers, people infected with an STD are far more likely to contract HIV.
Affordability is often the main concern among students with regards to accessibility to STD screenings and treatment. The good news is that there are several free or very affordable ways to get tested and then get treated. And if you’re 26 or younger, most of these locations will also offer Guardasil, which is a vaccination to prevent infection by some of the more dangerous strains of HPV, which can cause cancer.
- Health Insurance – Stating the obvious, if you have health insurance this is where you want to use it. Keep yourself screened and tested. Most family doctors, urgent cares, emergency rooms and health clinics perform STD checkups and can provide some sort of treatment – although I wouldn’t advise going to the emergency department for a funky rash unless you want a hefty bill. Just down the street from Seattle Central, you’ll find Virginia Mason, Swedish and Harborview Medical Centers. They all have primary care departments that can assist you.
- Apple Health – If your income is low, you may qualify for Apple Health, which is Washington state’s version of Medicaid. If you are currently uninsured and make less than $1387 per month then you may qualify. And if you already have Apple Health, then you can use your insurance most places for STD screening and treatment.
- Planned Parenthood – There are two locations less than a mile from campus. Both locations accept walk-ins and offer services on a sliding scale to keep them affordable. In addition to STD screening, vaccines and treatment options, they also offer abortion services, HIV care, LGBT health services, pregnancy testing and more.
- Seattle Counseling Service – Located just down the street, they offer drop-in HIV and HepC testing on Wednesday afternoons. SCS is also present on campus every other Thursday in the main hallway of the BE building where they can do HIV testing and sign you up for other sexual health services. They accept Apple Health and also have a sliding scale. You can always stop by their table to grab some free condoms or dental dams.
Brian Tacovelli is a Peer Specialist with Seattle Counseling Service. He is often the face you’ll see in the halls of Seattle Central handing out free condoms and lube. He’s also a PrEP Navigator. PrEP is a prophylactic medication designed to prevent HIV infection. If you want more information on PrEP or want to get a quick and easy HIV test done using your fingerprint, just stop by and chat with Brian on one of the Thursdays he is on campus. A quick chat with Brian could get you pointed in the right direction when it comes to sexual health and wellness.
Stay safe out there!