There’s a lot you can do to reduce the chances of HIV/STI transmission. No prevention method is 100% guaranteed, so if you’re sexually active, it’s important to get tested regularly for HIV and other STIs. Here are a few ways you can take charge of your sexual health.
When used regularly and correctly, condoms are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV. They also work to prevent STIs that are transmitted through bodily fluids (Gonorrhea and Chlamydia) but provide less protection against STIs spread through skin-to-skin contact (Genital Warts, Genital Herpes, and Syphilis).
PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a prevention method used by people who are HIV-negative. When someone is exposed to HIV through sex or injection drug use, these medications continuously work to prevent HIV infection. PrEP is meant to be taken every day for however long the individual wants against HIV. PrEP is only offered as a prescription, but individuals can cease their PrEP regimen or reengage whenever they find it necessary.
People whose HIV viral load (the amount of HIV in the bloodstream) is stably suppressed, cannot sexually transmit the virus. HIV treatment can reduce the viral load in the bodily fluids that transmit HIV to undetectable levels. To become and remain undetectable, people living with HIV need to take their HIV treatment as prescribed. In addition to taking HIV medications, regular medical visits are important to monitor viral load and keep you as healthy as possible.
TasP, or treatment as prevention, means taking antiretroviral medicines to prevent the transmission of HIV. Studies show that when a person living with HIV takes their antiretroviral medications as prescribed, their chances of spreading the virus are basically non-existent. HIV treatment reduces the amount of HIV in the body which will keep you and your sexual partners healthy. If you are living with HIV, it is important that you get connected to a medical provider and find a treatment to keep you healthy.
PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) refers to the use of antiretroviral drugs for people who are HIV-negative after a single high-risk exposure to stop HIV infection. PEP must be started as soon as possible to be effective – always within 72 hours of a possible exposure – and continued for 4 weeks.
Data shows that MSM and their partners are at the highest risk of contracting STIs and HIV in Massachusetts.
The best way to reduce the risk of transmission is to get tested regularly (every 3-6 months).
Not all STIs cause symptoms, so it’s important to get tested regularly. For HIV, a positive test result is an opportunity to treat HIV, stay healthy and prevent transmission to others. A negative result gives you the chance to adopt a prevention plan to remain HIV negative, like getting on PrEP.
HIV and Hepatitis C can be transmitted by sharing needles or other injection equipment (or “works”) (e.g., cookers, rinse water, cotton). The safest way is to use your own sterile works every time. If you don’t have access to a place to exchange needles, give our Drug User Health Program a call at 617.599.0246 to connect you to a needle exchange program. We can also give you naloxone to stop an overdose and help save a life.
Although the risk of HIV infection from oral sex is low, some other STIs can be passed via oral sex, like Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, Herpes or Syphilis. Also, if you have an STI in your throat your chances of contracting HIV or hepatitis B may be higher.
HIV, Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, Syphilis, Herpes, HPV, and Hepatitis C can all be transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids during unprotected vaginal and anal sex. You can reduce your risk for transmitting or being infected with an STI by using a condom and using plenty of lube to help prevent tearing in the vagina or anus. The tissue in the anus is particularly sensitive and sometimes micro abrasions (cut) can occur without evidence of bleeding. Using a condom and lube can create a safe barrier between you and your partner.
Individuals who are sexually active are at increased risk for Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B (viruses that can cause serious liver problems if untreated), and for HPV (a virus that causes genital warts and can cause cancer). There are safe and effective vaccines for all of these infections, so you should strongly consider getting vaccinated. HPV is so common that it is recommended to get that vaccine before you become sexually active.
Starting antiretroviral medication as soon as possible is the best way to remain healthy if you’ve been diagnosed with HIV. A doctor can assess your needs and create a treatment plan to help you stay healthy. HIV is a chronic illness that needs to be monitored regularly and with the help of antiretrovirals, people living with HIV can live long and healthy lives. Studies show that when antiretroviral therapy is started immediately, HIV will affect the body less over the course of someone’s lifetime.
Disclosing your HIV status to your sex partners is important and communicating with each other about your HIV status means you can take steps to keep you and your partner(s) healthy. If you are nervous about disclosing your status, or you have been threatened or injured by a partner, you can ask your doctor or state health department to help you tell your partner(s) or tell them anonymously through the free partner services programs.
Disclosing your HIV status to your friends and family is a personal decision. Your HIV status is only your news to share. Studies do show however, that those who disclose their HIV status to close friends or family have a higher chance of seeking HIV treatment.
We offer many ways to support you — whether you’re newly diagnosed or need help getting linked back to HIV medical care, our health navigators and case managers at Fenway Health can provide support through HIV education, insurance navigation, and getting connected to a primary care doctor.
Most STIs are easily treated if caught early. Unfortunately, many of us don’t have any visible symptoms, which is why it is so important to get tested and treated to help lower your risk of prolonged health problems. Getting treated also eliminates your chances of transmitting an STI infection to someone else.
The majority of people with an STI don’t display any symptoms, so getting tested every 3-6 months is recommended.
When you come for sexual health testing at Fenway Health, you’ll be asked to fill out some forms that will need your name, date of birth and contact information. If you have health insurance, bring your card with you. Don’t worry, no one will be turned away due to lack of insurance, and you won’t have any out-of-pocket fees. All services are confidential.
Next, you’ll meet with a trained health navigator who will explain the testing, discuss your possible risks, and cover options for reducing your risk in the future. This is a great time to ask questions about HIV/STI transmission, how to access PrEP, or any other questions you may have about your sexual health. As a reminder, here are the window periods for each STI we test for:
If you have potential exposure to any of these STIs and test too soon, there is a chance you can receive a false negative result. Talk to your health navigator during the counselling session to discuss your specific needs so that you both can identify if and when retesting will be necessary.
Our health navigators will draw your blood and collect a urine sample and swabs where appropriate. These samples will be submitted to the state lab and we will contact you with your results within 7-10 business days through your preferred contact method.