It’s the decision no one wants to make. You’re diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Should you inform your partner(s)?

If you do, what follows is the discussion no one wants to have. Your honey is almost certain to ask, “Did you cheat?” Perhaps you did. But you might also swear on a stack of Bibles that you did not. To which your lover is likely to retort, “But you have a sexually transmitted infection! How can you claim you were not unfaithful?”

Good question. But it's quite possible to contract an STI in a completely monogamous relationship.

Speak Up!

If you develop STI symptoms or get diagnosed with one, it behooves you to tell your partner(s) as quickly as possible. It’s essential to speak up. It’s also difficult. Nonetheless, do the right thing. Tell everyone you might have infected.

Raising the issue promptly risks recriminations and maybe outraged break-ups. But lovers who remain silent risk more. Eventually, your lover is likely to find out—and become doubly furious, first that it happened at all, and second, that you said nothing. A crime is bad, a cover-up worse. 

In addition, men who don’t inform women about the possibility of an STI may risk women’s lives. This is not an exaggeration. Two of the most prevalent STIs, chlamydia and gonorrhea, rarely cause symptoms in women, but if left untreated, may progress to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), a serious infection of women’s reproductive organs that can cause infertility, serious illness, and possibly even death. Women have become sterile and died because their lovers were too embarrassed or unconcerned to inform them about infections that could have been cured easily if treated.

Only Three STIs Are Transmitted Sexually Every Time

Some people assume that if lovers develop STIs, there must have been hanky-panky. That may be the case, of course, but it’s also possible to contract several STIs without infidelity, and in some cases, without any sexual contact.

Only three STIs are transmitted exclusively sexually: gonorrhea, syphilis, and genital warts. Herpes and chlamydia are almost always passed sexually, through nonsexual transmission is theoretically possible. All other STIs may be contracted non-sexually.

Infected Long Ago?

In addition, after people become infected with several STIs—HIV, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and genital warts—they may not develop symptoms for quite a while, if ever. HIV, herpes, and warts may not cause symptoms for years. It’s quite possible for both men and women to become infected in one relationship yet develop no symptoms until involved in a subsequent relationship that’s completely monogamous.

Infected by an Asymptomatic Woman?

As just mentioned, women with chlamydia and gonorrhea, two of the most prevalent STIs, may not develop symptoms. Yet, they can still transmit these infections. It’s possible for women to be infected without knowing it, then pass their infections to men. The men are more likely to develop symptoms. When they do, the women may accuse them of cheating when those very women could have been the source of infection (a "ping-pong" infection).

STI Age Demographics

Here’s the age distribution for risk of chlamydia as compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Risk for the other sexual infections is very similar.  

Age…and percentage of infections

0-14...1 percent

15-19…26 percent

20-24…39 percent

25-29…18 percent

30-39…12 percent

40+…4 percent

STIs cluster among teens and young adults. Young people are also are the age group most likely to see things as either black or white, to believe that a partner’s STI absolutely proves infidelity, and to be unaware that this may not be the case. The upshot is break-ups involving people who might not have cheated.

Some Suggestions

Whatever your age, how you conduct your relationships is up to you. If lovers develop STIs, you’re free to send them packing. But before you do anything hasty, take some deep breaths and try to keep a few things in mind:

• The two most prevalent STIs are chlamydia and gonorrhea. They can only be spread sexually. Women may develop no symptoms but still pass them. When men develop symptoms, they may have fooled around. Or they may have caught the infection from their asymptomatic lovers.

• The symptoms of many STIs—chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, genital warts, and HIV—may take weeks, months, or even years to develop. Lovers may have caught them in previous relationships.

• Men or women who experience genital symptoms—any unusual discharge, any persistent pain or burning during urination, or any unusual bumps on or around the genitals or anus—should consult physicians promptly.

If diagnosed with an STI, people should inform all their recent lovers immediately and urge them to seek testing and treatment. Men who fail to do this are possibly risking women’s lives.

• STIs may signal infidelity. But maybe not.

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