Some Good News About Three Sexually Transmitted Viruses

Scientists are hard at work finding ways to improve your health!

With so much bad news emblazoned across headlines in every newspaper you look at, the world might seem like a gloomy place. So let’s take one depressing subject — disease — and peel away the sad outer layer to find silver linings of optimism.

When it comes to infections, a lot of us blame one thing: germs, also known as “bugs” — “pathogens” if we’re fancy. Some people might not think of infectious diseases as being that big of a deal — after a round of antibiotics, you’ll be on the mend. Unfortunately, antibiotics only work for bacteria, but a lot of diseases are caused by other types of germs — for which antibiotics are no match. One type of germ is called a virus, and they can’t be cured. Sometimes they can be prevented with vaccines or treated with drugs. For example, the major strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) can be prevented with a vaccine called Gardasil, herpes simplex virus can be suppressed with antiviral drugs, and HIV can be controlled with antiretroviral drugs — but none of these infections can be cured. HPV is usually defeated by the immune system, but herpes and HIV are with you for life.

But it’s not all bad. Around the world, individual scientists have picked their “favorite” viruses and are devoting their lives to finding better prevention strategies, better treatments, and even cures. Let’s check in with some of the latest headlines touting the successes of science.

New Hope for a Herpes Vaccine

A herpes vaccine would be a blockbuster — given how common this sexually transmitted infection is, a preventive shot could help a lot of couples discuss their herpes status without as much fear of judgment and stigma.

Herpes might cause an “outbreak” — unpleasant symptoms that include genital sores — but afterward the virus goes dormant in the nerve cells, hiding from the immune system. In some people, the virus can come out of its dormancy to cause flare-ups of symptoms, but once it’s had its fun it retreats back to the nerve cells.

Earlier this year, media reported on a promising new candidate for a herpes vaccine. Using a completely different strategy than previous, failed herpes vaccines, the researchers behind this breakthrough targeted the part of the virus that allows it to hide from our immune systems. If this vaccine works as hoped, recipients will be able to mount an immune defense when exposed to the virus, blocking it from establishing a permanent home in nerve cells. It might even suppress outbreaks in people who already have herpes. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Can I Use Plastic Wrap as a Dental Dam During Oral Sex?

plastic wrapIf you read this blog — or any sexual health website, really — you’ll probably see dental dams getting a lot of props. A dental dam (not to be confused with a female condom) is a square piece of latex that can cover the vaginal opening or the anus. Anyone wishing to avoid the oral transmission of STDs like herpes, gonorrhea, HPV, syphilis, chlamydia, and intestinal parasites, dental-dam advocates say, should use a latex barrier. Most people, however, have probably never even seen a dental dam, and they are not widely used. Perhaps their unpopularity is related to myths about oral sex being safe sex (it’s not!); perhaps it’s due to dental dams being expensive or difficult to find.


Plastic wrap hasn’t been evaluated by the FDA for STD prevention, and no studies have assessed its effectiveness in reducing disease risk during oral sex.


Some safer-sex aficionados have found ways around that, though. They might cut the tips off of condoms and make incisions along the sides, creating little latex rectangles. An even easier and cheaper option lies in plastic wrap, which many people use as a barrier while performing cunnilingus (oral contact with the female genitalia) or rimming (oral contact with the anus). It is inexpensive, easy to find, odorless, and tasteless, and can be purchased without even a hint of embarrassment (unless perhaps your other purchases include duct tape, cucumbers, and clothes pins). And it can be pulled off the roll in sheets as long as your heart desires!

Planned Parenthood endorses the use of plastic wrap for oral sex when dental dams aren’t available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and AIDS.gov both recommend plastic wrap for use during rimming. Health authorities, such as AIDS.gov and the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare, recommend non-microwavable Saran Wrap, because microwave-safe Saran Wrap has tiny pores to let out steam — which might also let viruses and bacteria through. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Is Bacterial Vaginosis a Sexually Transmitted Disease?

Not to scale: Gardnerella vaginalis under a microscope. Image: K.K. Jefferson/Virginia Commonwealth University

Gardnerella vaginalis under a microscope. Image: K.K. Jefferson/Virginia Commonwealth University

Bacterial vaginosis, or BV, is the most common vaginal infection among people 15 to 44 years of age. It’s caused by an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, such as Gardnerella vaginalis. A healthy vagina hosts thriving populations of Lactobacillus bacteria species, but when these “good” bacteria are crowded out by certain types of “bad” bacteria, the vaginal ecosystem can be shifted, causing BV.

There is a lot of confusion about BV. Is it a sexually transmitted disease (STD)? What are the symptoms? How can you avoid it?

All good questions. Let’s examine them one by one.

Is BV an STD?

The consensus seems to be that BV isn’t officially an STD, but even reliable sources have somewhat contradictory information. Planned Parenthood doesn’t list BV as an STD on their informational webpages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does include BV on their STD website, but also says that “BV is not considered an STD.”

On the other hand, the Office on Women’s Health says that “BV can … be caused by vaginal, oral, or anal sex” and that “you can get BV from male or female partners.” And there’s an entire chapter devoted to BV in the premier medical textbook on STDs, and its authors say that, while sexually inexperienced females can get BV, “the weight of evidence supports sexual transmission” of G. vaginalis, the bacteria species most famously implicated in BV infections.

The same webpage on which the CDC declared BV not to be an STD also says that it can be transferred between female sexual partners. Indeed, women who have sex with women have higher rates of BV. Since vaginal fluid could spread BV, partners can change condoms when a sex toy is passed from one to another, and use barriers like dental dams when engaging in cunnilingus (oral contact with the female genitalia) or rimming (oral contact with the anus).

What about heterosexual transmission? Continue reading

STD Awareness: Which STDs Are Vaccine Preventable?

scientistWouldn’t it be great if we could wipe sexually transmitted diseases off the face of the earth? If vaccinologists have a big “to-do” list out there, probably every single infectious disease is on it, including every STD. But some STDs have a higher priority than others, while other pathogens, unfortunately, don’t yield to our efforts quite as easily as other vaccine-preventable diseases.

Celebrate National Immunization Awareness Month by taking a look at a vaccinologist’s hypothetical “to-do” list below. While we already have a couple of STDs checked off that list, there is still more progress to be made!

check boxHuman papillomavirus: Gardasil, the most widely used HPV vaccine, introduced a new-and-improved version earlier this year. Gardasil 9 protects against seven strains of HPV that collectively cause 90 percent of cervical cancers and anal cancers, plus the two HPV strains that are jointly responsible for 90 percent of genital warts. Not only that, but vaccination against HPV will also reduce the frequency of “pre-cancers,” which are cellular abnormalities that can be treated before progressing into full-fledged cancer — meaning less time, money, and anxiety spent dealing with follow-up procedures and treatments. In fact, Australia is already seeing a huge nosedive in genital warts and pre-cancers — all thanks to their sky-high HPV vaccination rates.

check boxHepatitis A and B: Hepatitis, a disease of the liver, can be caused by several types of viruses, including hepatitis A virus and hepatitis B virus. Both can be transmitted sexually, but thanks to the vaccines, you can ask to be protected against them using a combination vaccine, meaning you’ll only have to get three shots over a six-month period rather than the five shots you’d receive if you were vaccinated for the two viruses separately. Continue reading

Is Douching Safe?

This vintage douche ad claims that its product is “safe to delicate tissues” and “non-poisonous.”

Douching is the practice of squirting a liquid, called a douche, into the vagina. Many people believe it helps keep the vagina clean and odor-free, and some are under the impression that it helps prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. An estimated 25 percent of American women 15 to 44 years old douche regularly. But just because douching is widespread doesn’t mean it’s safe; indeed, there are two possible mechanisms by which douching might be harmful.

First, douching might alter the pH of the vagina, changing its ecosystem. You might not think of a vagina as an “ecosystem,” but the bacteria and other microscopic organisms that live there sure do — and altering their habitat can harm the beneficial microbes that live there, opening the door for disease-causing microbes to take over the territory. Frequent douching can result in the vagina’s normal microbial population having difficulty reestablishing its population.


Douching increases risk for infections and fertility problems, and has no proven medical benefits.


Second, a douche’s upward flow might give pathogens a “free ride” into the depths of the reproductive tract, granting them access to areas that might have been difficult for them to reach otherwise. In this manner, an infection might spread from the lower reproductive tract to the upper reproductive tract. Douching might be an even bigger risk for female adolescents, whose reproductive anatomy is not fully formed, leaving them more vulnerable to pathogens.

While douching is not guaranteed to harm you, there is no evidence that it is beneficial in any way. Establishing causation between douching and the problems that are associated with it is trickier — does douching cause these problems, or do people who douche also tend to engage in other behaviors that increase risk? So far, the best evidence indicates that douching is correlated with a number of diseases and other problems, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), bacterial vaginosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, fertility and pregnancy complications, and more. Continue reading

STD Awareness: The Herpes Virus and Herpes Medications

herpes medicationOne of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) is herpes, which affects an estimated 1 out of 6 Americans between the ages of 14 and 49. Herpes is caused by a virus, and one reason that it’s so widespread is that the herpesvirus is ancient. Prehistoric, even — dinosaurs are thought to have been infected by herpesviruses! The Herpesviridae family is huge, with at least 100 members infecting mammals, birds, reptiles, bony fish, amphibians, and oysters.


Herpes drugs from the acyclovir family physically block herpes DNA from replicating — which is pretty amazing!


Humans can suffer from both oral herpes and genital herpes, which are caused by two types of the herpes simplex virus (HSV-1 and HSV-2). Recent genetic analysis reveals that the virus that causes cold sores, HSV-1, has been evolving with us since before we were Homo sapiens, diverging from the viruses that infected our common ancestors 6 million years ago. Interestingly, we didn’t acquire HSV-2 — which mostly causes genital herpes — until our Homo erectus ancestors caught it from early chimpanzees 1.6 million years ago, well before the emergence of modern Homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago.

Most people know what the virus doesgenital herpes can involve blisters, pain, and itching — but most people don’t know how the virus works. Luckily, scientists have uncovered a lot of the virus’ secrets — which has allowed them to develop some pretty effective drugs that we can use to foil herpes’ plans. Continue reading

The Condom Broke. Now What?

oopsProtecting yourself with barriers like condoms is an important part of keeping yourself healthy when you and your partner don’t know one another’s STD status. Condoms are also great for pregnancy prevention. You can improve their effectiveness by learning how to put them on correctly, using a generous amount of lubricant, and checking their expiration dates.

But, sometimes, despite your best intentions, condoms break.

When that happens, you might wonder about your vulnerability to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). And, if pregnancy is a possibility, you might also be concerned about sperm meeting egg. Luckily, there are still options. One, getting tested for STDs can help you receive treatment, if needed, in a timely manner. Two, if you act quickly, you can still take steps to minimize the risk of certain STDs or help avert an unwanted pregnancy.

Don’t let a broken condom immobilize you with fear! Take matters into your own hands, and learn what to do if a condom breaks.

How long does it take after a potential exposure until an STD test is likely to be accurate?

The answer to this question is: It varies. Each STD has a different “window period,” that is, the time it takes for an infection to be detectable. Some STDs can be tested for within days (if symptoms are present), while other STDs can take months to show up on a test. Also, while you might be inclined to wait and see if symptoms show up, remember that most STDs don’t have symptoms at all! When infections don’t have symptoms, they are said to be “asymptomatic.”

Check out this handy chart to see how long it takes for symptoms to appear, how common asymptomatic infections are, and how soon you should be tested.  Continue reading