Protect yourself in the war against sexually transmitted infections

By Veronique Hauschild, Army Public Health CenterSeptember 23, 2021

You wouldn't go into combat without protection
As part of September’s Sexual Health Month, the Army Public Health Center wants to re-engage soldiers and leaders in the war on Sexually Transmitted Infections. Soldiers with questions about where to find free condoms, STI testing, or treatment, are encouraged to contact their medical provider or local installation Army public health nurse. (Photo Credit: (Army Graphic Illustration by Joyce Kopatch)) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health departments continue to fight the war on sexually transmitted infections. The CDC has reported rising STI rates for years and recently published findings from an analysis of 2018 STI data indicating that one in five people in the U.S. had an STI.

The Army Public Health Center has found that soldiers are a high-risk subgroup of the overall U.S. population because they largely fall within the highest risk age group of 15-24 years old. Soldiers also report frequent risky behavior, such as binge drinking, and they may also have unique risks due to increased travel and mission-related stressors.

As part of September’s Sexual Health Month, the APHC wants to re-engage soldiers and leaders in the war on STIs.

STIs happen. That should be accepted and acknowledged by Soldiers and leaders. What should not be accepted is shame or stigma that prevents Soldiers from getting tested and treated. Many STIs can be easily cured and all can be treated. They can also be prevented with, for example, condoms.

According to the CDC, STI symptoms can show up days to months after an exposure. These include pelvic, vaginal, or penile pain, swelling, burning, discharge, odors, rashes, painful or painless blisters or warts, bleeding between periods or painful intercourse. Flu-like symptoms, sore throat, joint pain, and brain or eye inflammation can also be signs.

The CDC notes that if not treated, an infected person can not only pass infection along, but also can develop long term effects such as infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, chronic pain, increased risk of Human Immunodeficiency Virus, commonly known as HIV, neurological problems, certain types of cancer, organ failure and potentially death. Untreated STIs can also be dangerous to a mother and her baby.

“The CDC provides a wealth of information about STIs and how to prevent, detect, and treat them”, says Maggie Stover, a registered nurse with the APHC Army Public Health Nursing Branch. “We rely on the CDC to provide quality medical guidance.”

Stover explains the types of STIs and that there can be numerous symptoms or none at all.

“Many STIs have no symptoms or only mild symptoms, especially in women,” says Stover. “Some STIs may have symptoms that go away for a while but then come back.”

But perhaps the biggest problem in the war against STIs, Stover states, is that you may not have any symptoms. Many men and women are ‘silent carriers’ who don’t have any symptoms but can still infect others.

STIs which can generally be cured with antibiotics include the bacterial STIs chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis and the parasitic STI trichomoniasis. These infections are still common today, despite improvements in diagnostic testing and effective antibiotics. Though most identified cases can be cured, rises in antibiotic resistance, particularly for gonorrhea, are also a concern.

Virus-caused STIs include herpes simplex virus, or HSV, the human papillomavirus, or HPV, hepatitis B, and HIV. These cannot be cured, but they can be medically managed. HPV and hepatitis B can also be prevented with vaccines.

APHC experts note that the only STI which all soldiers are routinely tested for is HIV. Stover adds that high-risk female soldiers, typically those under 25, also get tested annually for STIs such as chlamydia, in part to protect against pregnancy complications.

Male soldiers are not required to get tested, says Stover, who also said she is concerned that infected male soldiers who don’t have symptoms are not likely to get tested and may infect others.

Stover urges all sexually active personnel to get tested, practice safe sex, and be aware of activities that can increase risk.

STIs are NOT spread through air, water, food, or activities such as shaking hands, hugging, or touching surfaces and objects such as telephones, door knobs, toilet seats. STIs are spread through the exchange of infected body fluids from —

  • ANY intimate or sexual contact, including oral, vaginal, and anal sex, and sex toys
  • Direct blood contact through sharing of needles, syringes, or razors or unclean tattoo or body piercing equipment
  • Mother to baby during pregnancy or delivery, and HIV through breast milk

Risky situations that increase the chance of contracting an STI include —

  • Inconsistent condom use (oral, vaginal, anal)
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • One night stands, “hook ups”
  • Soliciting sex
  • Sharing razors, needles
  • Tattooing and piercing from risky sources
  • Being under the influence of illegal substances or alcohol

What can you do?

The following are ways for you to Respect and Protect yourself and others. It’s a Soldier’s duty, and your life or your loved ones may depend on it.

  • Get tested as often as your health provider suggests for your situation and get treatment if needed
  • Get the HPV and hepatitis B vaccines as indicated by your provider
  • Abstain or wait to have intimate contact with a partner
  • Be in a mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner
  • Reduce your number of partners and high risk situations
  • Use a condom correctly EVERY time and don’t use or agree to “condom excuses”

“I’m clean and my partner looks clean.”

“My partner didn’t want to use a condom.”

 “We don’t need condoms since I’m/you’re on the pill.”

“They don’t fit right.”

“They always break.”

“They’re too much trouble & make things messy & might come off.”

“You can’t feel anything with one of those on.”

“I just got a negative STI or HIV test.”

Also, avoid sharing razor blades or needles and only use tattoo and piercing facilities that you know are safe and clean.

Soldiers with questions about where to find free condoms, STI testing, or treatment, are encouraged to contact their medical provider or local installation Army Public Health Nurse. There is absolutely no shame in being responsible about sex!

For more information, check the APHC sexual health website.

The Army Public Health Center enhances Army readiness by identifying and assessing current and emerging health threats, developing and communicating public health solutions, and assuring the quality and effectiveness of the Army’s Public Health Enterprise.