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How to talk to an intimate partner about infections

Here’s what you need to know about having a conversation about STIs (and other vaginal infections) with a sexual partner

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Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are incredibly common. In the U.S., approximately 1 in 5 people have STIs. Almost half of new infections occur among young people ages 15-24. So, chances are good that either you or one of your sexual partners have experienced an STI.

There’s no shame in having or having had an STI—in fact, they’re a natural part of being sexually active or coming in close contact with people. The more informed we can be before having sex with someone, the better prepared we can be for what can happen next. 

Here’s what you need to know about having the STI conversation with sexual partners.

What are sexually transmitted infections?

STIs are viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites that can be passed from one person to another through sexual contact. Many STIs don’t have any symptoms, which is why regular testing is important if you’re sexually active.

Condoms, regular STI testing, and vaccination (for human papillomavirus and hepatitis B) are three of the most effective ways to prevent the transmission of STIs. Birth control medications can help prevent pregnancy, but they can’t reduce the risk of STI transmission.

Most STIs can be treated through medication prescribed by a health care provider. For example, Hey Jane’s non-judgmental clinical care team can help you quickly and discreetly treat herpes, with judgment-free consultations from your phone and prescriptions sent to your pharmacy for fast, local pickup so you can start feeling better. If left untreated, many STIs can not only be uncomfortable, but they can also have a long-term impact on fertility (by leading to pelvic inflammatory disease).

What infections can be sexually transmitted?

There are a range of infections that could be passed along to a partner during sex—for example, if you have a cold and have sex with your partner, you could pass that cold along to them. But we wouldn’t consider a cold an STI. 

The infections that are considered STIs are infections that are transmitted exclusively through sexual contact. They include:

HPV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea are the most common STIs in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 43 million people had HPV in 2018 (13 million of which were new infections), 1,644,416 chlamydia cases were reported in 2021, and 710,151 gonorrhea cases were reported in 2021.

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What about UTIs, BV, and yeast infections?

Urinary tract infections (UTIs), bacterial vaginosis (BV), and yeast infections are common infections that impact the reproductive system. But can they spread like STIs do?

UTIs can’t be passed from partner to partner through sex. That said, having sex can increase the risk for UTIs. That’s because sex can spread bacteria close to the urethra (where pee comes out). 

BV isn’t an STI either, but the bacteria can spread between partners through sex. Partners with penises won’t need treatment, but they can carry the bacteria and may transmit it to partners with vaginas. Partners with vaginas can get BV from partners with vaginas if they have it. Having BV is also associated with higher rates of STIs.

What about yeast infections? Like UTIs and BV, they aren’t considered STIs. While there is a risk of a yeast infection being spread through sex, it is a low risk and would not warrant immediate treatment following exposure. However, the bacteria can be spread through sex. Partners with penises have very low risk of infection, while partners with vaginas have higher risk and should get treatment if exposed through sex.

(If you are dealing with a UTI, BV, and yeast infection, Hey Jane can help you get treatment quickly, so you can feel better ASAP.)

How to talk to your partner(s) about STIs

1. Tell your partner about any STIs you have or recently had

Talking about things like STIs, especially with new partners, is admittedly a little awkward. But it’s an important part of staying on top of your reproductive and sexual health. This conversation also ensures you can both consent to sexual activity fully informed.

While all STIs have treatment regimens, not all are curable—and some, if left untreated, can lead to fertility challenges down the line. 

2. Be honest and nonjudgmental

When broaching any kind of sensitive and potentially uncomfortable topic, be open, honest, and nonjudgmental. Honesty is often only possible in emotionally safe and supportive conversations. 

Here are some ways to start those conversations:

  • “Honesty is such an important part of relationships, so I wanted to share something with you. When I got tested for STIs a few months ago, I tested positive for gonorrhea. I got it treated and no longer have it, but it reminded me just how common STIs are. When’s the last time you got tested?”
  • “Before we have sex, I want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to take care of one another. I got tested for STIs last month and tested negative for everything. What about you?”
  • “I know these conversations can feel a little awkward in new relationships, but it’s important that we talk about STIs. Would you be open to getting tested together before we have sex for the first time?”
  • “I was going to go get tested for STIs—want to make it a date? We can go together!”

If you’re feeling especially nervous about bringing up STIs with a new partner, try role playing with a trusted friend or a therapist. Practicing what you say before you say it can help it feel more natural once the time comes.

3. Get tested with new partners

Since STIs are so common, it’s a good idea to discuss the last time you were both tested. Also, consider getting tested with new partners before getting physical. The CDC shares screening recommendations for different populations, and you can find a nearby location for testing through GetTested.

If you or your partner have an STI that is curable, like gonorrhea, chlamydia, or trich, it is important to get treated before having unprotected sex so that you don't pass it on. Most treatments take seven days to be effective, so make sure you are giving the medication time to work. If you or your partner have an STI that is not curable with a round of medications, like herpes or HIV, have a conversation with this partner about how to avoid transmission. You can absolutely still have sex with a new partner if you or they have an STI. Condoms create a physical barrier to sexual transmission of infections, and medical advancements in treatment and prevention (think PrEP and U=U) can make it so HIV transmission is extremely unlikely. 

Having these conversations enables you to engage in safer, more informed sex, which sounds pretty damn sexy to us.

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Written by

Sarah duRivage-Jacobs (MPH)

Sarah duRivage-Jacobs is a New York-based writer and editor of words dealing with reproductive health and abortion access. She received her Masters of Public Health degree in Community Health.

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