Anyone who is sexually active or has had sex in the past can get diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Treatment of STIs depends on many factors, including the cause of the infection.
All STIs are treatable. Typically, providers treat bacterial STIs with antibiotics and viral STIs with antiviral therapy. Medications can cure bacterial but not viral STIs.
Even if treatment is successful, reinfection is common. To help prevent the further spread of infection, all recent sex partners must receive STI care.
If you test positive, you may wonder what to do next. Below are the most critical steps you can take to protect yourself and others after an STI diagnosis.
Get medical care right away
The first thing to do after testing positive for an STI is to get immediate medical care and follow the recommended treatment plan. Early treatment is the key to preventing more severe health problems and reducing the spread of STIs to sex partners. For those who don’t have health insurance or feel uncomfortable talking to their regular healthcare provider about sexual health, there are places to go that offer free or low-cost STI testing and treatment. Examples include local health departments, urgent care clinics, and student health clinics.
Fortunately, once diagnosed, there are ways to treat but not cure all STIs. The type of treatment offered will depend on the specific STI found and personal healthcare needs. In some cases, treatment may also vary based on the location or length of the infection.
Bacterial STIs are curable with the right medicine. Typically, providers give oral antibiotics to take in a single dose or over seven days for chlamydia and a single antibiotic injection for gonorrhea. For syphilis, treatment involves one or more penicillin injections.
Although there’s no cure for viral STIs, treatment can relieve symptoms and slow down the infection. Various therapies can treat HPV-related warts, while oral antiviral medications can treat sores caused by genital herpes. For HIV, treatment is lifelong and involves antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART is a combination of medicines taken daily, usually in a single pill.
During treatment, it’s important to take all STI medications as prescribed and continue antibiotics until they are gone, even if symptoms improve before the treatment ends.
Tell any sex partners
Most STIs respond well to treatment when it begins as early as possible. However, people can continue to get STIs repeatedly because their sex partners may also have an STI and not know it. To help avoid getting the same infection again, sex partners must also get tested and treated. So, your recent sex partners will need to know if you test positive for an STI.
Although telling a sex partner that you have an STI isn’t easy, it’s the right thing to do so that your partner can also take steps to protect their health. During the conversation, it’s normal for both partners to feel uneasy or have strong emotions. So, be sure to choose a quiet, private, relaxed place to talk. It’s also helpful to share this news in a non-sexual environment when both partners have enough time for discussion and can offer their full attention.
The best way to talk to your partner is honestly and openly. Avoiding blame is also important, even if you’ve only had one partner. Instead, listen to your partner’s concerns, focus on the facts, and offer solutions, including sharing information about the STI you have and treatment options. Keep in mind that STIs don’t always cause symptoms, so it’s not always possible to know who got infected first, and a person may have an STI from a past relationship.
If you don’t feel comfortable telling a sex partner, your local health department can talk to them or help you speak to them. The most important thing to remember is that the sooner everyone involved knows they’re infected, the sooner they can get medical care.
Get retested for STIs
Because reinfection with the same STI commonly occurs after treatment, repeat testing is recommended for certain STIs. For example, anyone who tests positive for chlamydia or gonorrhea and all women who test positive for trichomoniasis should get another test three months after treatment to ensure they haven’t been infected again.
Repeat testing for syphilis is also necessary to confirm the diagnosis. Healthcare providers may use additional follow-up tests during treatment to ensure it’s working effectively.
Continue to protect your health
Treatment for STIs doesn’t protect people from getting more STIs in the future. The only 100% effective way to prevent STIs is not to have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. However, there are ways that sexually active people can lower their chances of getting infected again, including:
- Condom use: Male or female condoms can reduce but not eliminate the risk of most STIs when used correctly and consistently for every vaginal, oral, or anal sex encounter. Condoms can’t always protect against STIs like genital HPV and genital herpes, though, because they can infect areas of the skin or genitals that condoms don’t cover.
- Regular STI testing: The only way to confirm an STI infection is to get tested. Once a person knows their STI status, they can take steps to protect themselves and others.
- Vaccination: Vaccines are a safe and effective way to prevent infection with high-risk types of genital HPV. However, vaccination is most effective before a person has been exposed to one or more types of HPV and can only prevent new HPV infections.
Treatment for STIs, especially if initiated early, helps protect yourself and your sex partners. Generally, providers prescribe antibiotics for bacterial STIs such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis and antiviral medications for viral STIs such as genital herpes, genital HPV, and HIV.
Remember to take all prescriptions precisely as instructed, even if symptoms persist. And to avoid getting infected again or passing on STIs to others, it’s best to tell your sex partner about your STI status and wait until both partners complete treatment before having sex again.