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Getting ready for love; Protecting yourself from STIs and STDs

BY DR. NEAL SHIPLEY | Recent reports show that STI/STDs are on the rise across New York. With Valentine’s Day around the corner, it’s a perfect time to tune up sexual health, because even though love and desire are celebrated in story and song, real life intimacy can be tricky to navigate.

As medical director at Northwell Health-GoHealth Urgent Care, I’ve seen many ways that patients partner with their healthcare provider to get ready for intimacy, from making choices about contraception to being aware of testing and treatment options.

Here are four reminders to be aware of if you’re sexually active:

The importance of regular testing: Testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is one of the best things people can do to safeguard themselves and their partners.

Now is a smart time to start regular testing since STIs are on the upswing. More than 2.5 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis were reported in 2021, a 5.8 percent increase over the previous year. It’s estimated that one of every two sexually active people will test positive for at least one of the most common STIs before they are 25.

Anyone who is sexually active and not in a monogamous relationship should be tested annually for STIs. More frequent testing is recommended for people with multiple or anonymous partners. Guidelines for what types of tests you need are based on demographic and risk profiles.

One overarching Centers for Disease Control recommendation is that everyone ages 13 to 64 be tested at least once for HIV, and men who have sex with men should be tested every year.

It’s important to make sure tests come from a reliable provider. However, people are often surprised that they don’t need to find a specialty center for testing. Northwell Health-GoHealth providers are experienced at administering reliable tests in a welcoming, private and affordable setting.

Know your treatment options: Skip googling and seek professional care if you test positive. Infections such as chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea can and should be fully treated before resuming sexual activity. Some viral infections, including HPV, HSV-1, HSV-2 and HIV, can be managed to reduce the risk of spread.

What to know about prevention: Have an open conversation with your provider about your sexual activity to learn about options for vaccines and barrier contraceptives, like condoms. Since untreated HPV infections can lead to cancer, teens and young adults up to age 26 are recommended to complete a series of vaccines, which is available from primary care providers and some pharmacies. Barrier contraceptives can reduce — but not eliminate — the risk of many STDs, including HIV. But be sure to follow guidelines about proper and consistent use to maximize effectiveness.

For those who want to protect themselves against HIV, Northwell Health-GoHealth offers referrals to Northwell Health specialists for screening and eligibility for Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is a medication that reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by about 99 percent when taken as prescribed. PrEP can only be prescribed to people who are currently HIV-negative. Since its approval by the F.D.A. more than a decade ago, PrEP has played a key role in limiting the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Northwell Health-GoHealth also offers PeP (post-exposure prophylaxis) treatments, including a one-time treatment of doxycycline (DoxyPeP) for exposures to gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis that can prevent up to 60 percent of infections. HIV PeP is also available through Northwell Health-GoHealth and must be taken daily for 28 days after possible exposure.

Getting good aftercare: Anyone who has had unprotected sex, including a broken condom, should get tested for STIs one-to-two weeks after sex and again in 90 days. In certain cases, action is more urgent. For some people in higher-risk categories, doctors may recommend doxycycline, an antibiotic, as a “morning after” pill for some diseases. For women who want to prevent pregnancy, two types of emergency contraception are available and can be used within five days of unprotected intercourse.

Embracing a healthy and responsible approach to intimacy is crucial to your overall health. As we celebrate love this Valentine’s Day, let’s renew our commitment to our sexual well-being and that of our partners, ensuring a safer and more fulfilling journey together.

Shipley is a physician and medical director at Northwell Health-GoHealth Urgent Care.

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