STD Awareness: Shaving, Waxing, and Trimming, Oh My!

Last month, the connection between body-hair removal and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) once again gave rise to a flurry of headlines. Media had previously reported on “studies” purporting that the popularity of waxing is leading to the extinction of pubic lice, or that shaving increases risk for a little-known STD called molluscum contagiosum.

The idea that waxing one’s nether regions is tantamount to habitat destruction for the lowly pubic louse makes a certain amount of sense. But was it really true that waxing was leading to diminished pubic-lice populations, or just a case of the media blowing an obscure medical factoid out of proportion? Ditto with the claims about molluscum contagiosum — though they were based on perfectly plausible premises, having to do with shaving causing microscopic skin injuries that create openings for infectious viruses, the average reader might not have been able to rely on a journalist’s ability to translate a scientific article from “medical-ese” into an easy-to-understand, yet fully nuanced, magazine blurb.


The case isn’t closed on the link between body-hair removal and STDs.


As we’ve written before, the reporting in the popular media left out important details — such as the fact that these weren’t studies at all, but rather educated guesses based on observations, published as letters to the editor. No one was comparing pubic lice infestations or sexually transmitted infections between groups of people with and without pubic hair.

Until now.

The medical journal Sexually Transmitted Infections recently published a study based on a survey of 7,470 American adults who had had at least one sexual partner. The salient point the media pounced on was that removing pubic hair increases STD risk by 400 percent: NPR screamed that “Going Bare Down There May Boost The Risk Of STDs,” Time proclaimed “Grooming is linked to a higher risk of STIs,” and The Guardian spooked readers with a rather tasteless piece about “the health dangers of bikini waxing.” Even Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update got in on the action, albeit with a crude joke about old men’s genitals.

But let’s leave headlines behind and delve right into the medical journal itself. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Three Sexually Transmitted Bugs That Will Fascinate and Intrigue You

From creepy crawly pubic lice, which can be seen with a magnifying glass, to minuscule human papillomaviruses, which can be seen with some of the most expensive microscopes in the world, there are many tiny pathogens that we can acquire through sexual contact. And, despite their diminutive sizes, some of them work in complicated ways, or tell stories about our origins that would blow you away. Let’s learn some amazing facts about three sexually transmitted bugs!

Phthirus pubis, the louse that causes scabies. Image from the Public Health Image Library.

Image: Public Health Image Library

Pubic lice: tiny insects that live in pubic hair

Fans of Charles Darwin might like learning about pubic lice, which offer clues about human evolution. While other apes’ bodies are habitat to only one species of louse, human bodies can host three different types of louse: head lice and the closely related body lice, as well as the distantly related pubic lice.

It is thought that when early humans lost their body hair, human lice followed this receding hairline and migrated to their heads to become head lice. At a later date, the gorilla louse colonized early humans’ pubic regions. Since pubic lice can be transmitted by infested bedding, one idea is that an early human caught pubic lice by sleeping in a burrow that had been recently vacated by a lice-ridden gorilla — no sexual contact required.

By examining the number of differences in the genetic codes of the modern gorilla louse and the human pubic louse, we can place their divergence into two separate species at about 3 million years ago, suggesting that our human ancestors lost their body hair at around that time.

A quite frankly weird fact about pubic lice involves the method their young use to hatch from their eggs — by releasing so much gas that the increase in air pressure causes them to burst from their shell. So there’s that. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Can You Get an STD in Your Eye?

eyeSexually transmitted diseases (STDs) usually haunt the nether regions, whether germs have set up shop in the urethra, clustered around the cervix, or burrowed inside a cell. There, they might cause symptoms, like a burning sensation when urinating, unusual discharge, or warts or sores in the genital area.

Sometimes, however, STDs can infect other parts of your body, usually places that boast environments that are warm and moist, just like your genitals. For example, the virus that causes genital warts can also infect the throat to cause growths inside the airway. Oral sex can transfer the bacteria that cause gonorrhea from a urethra to a throat. And herpes can spring up around the mouth or in the genital region, and can be transferred between the two locations.


Instead of wearing goggles during sex, get tested for STDs at Planned Parenthood!


But did you know that certain sexually transmitted organisms can find their way into human eyes? If you didn’t, you do now, so read on to learn about some of the types of STDs that can affect your eyes.

Chlamydia and Gonorrhea

The most common bacterial STD in the country is chlamydia, which strikes nearly 3 million American groins annually. In second place is gonorrhea, which infects around 800,000 Americans every year. Bacteria that infect the genital region have an affinity for its warm, moist atmosphere. And while eyes might not be their first choice, the ocular environment can be pretty inviting as well. When chlamydia or gonorrhea infect the eye, the resulting conditions are called chlamydial conjunctivitis and gonococcal conjunctivitis, respectively. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Can Lesbians Get STDs?

couple WSWA couple of months ago, in time for Valentine’s Day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it would start using the term “condomless sex” instead of “unprotected sex.” The move was hailed by many HIV advocacy groups for taking into account other risk-reduction practices, such as medications that decrease the chances of HIV transmission.


Women can transmit just about any STD to one another.


However, while medications can reduce HIV risk, condoms still offer protection from both pregnancy and many other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. One reason that condoms are so valuable is that they can be placed over a penis to collect fluids before and after ejaculation — dramatically reducing risk for both pregnancy and many STDs. So, even when using anti-HIV meds, engaging in “condomless sex” can still be risky.

But what if partners are engaged in sexual activities that don’t involve penises? Not all sexual couplings involve a cisgender man, and even those that do might not utilize a penis at every encounter. When two people without penises have sex, they’re probably going to be engaging in condomless sex — though condoms can be placed over penetrative sex toys or cut along the sides to be converted into dental dams, they might not figure too prominently in this couple’s safer-sex arsenal. Lesbians protecting themselves with dental dams are technically engaged in “condomless sex,” but it’s still a far cry from being “unprotected.” Continue reading

Does Waxing Get Rid of Crabs?

5266_lores croppedEver since I started writing this blog’s monthly STD Awareness column, I’ve kept my eye out for news related to sexually transmitted diseases. And, while some might find my enthusiasm for STD-related items to be slightly odd, I have been intrigued by what has been splashed across headlines so far this year.

First, in January, the claim surfaced that pubic lice (colloquially known as crabs) are being driven to extinction as their natural habitat is felled by razors and waxes. Then, just last month, a little-known STD called molluscum contagiosum got its 15 minutes when it was associated with the increased popularity of hairless pubic regions.


Some say hair removal is causing a decline of pubic lice; others say it increases virus risk. So what’s the deal?


These headlines might raise some questions: Does waxing or shaving my pubic area decrease my risk of crabs, but increase my risk of molluscum contagiosum? Should I shave or not? The answers to these questions aren’t quite as simple as the headlines make them out to be. Let’s take them one by one.

Does Waxing Prevent Pubic Lice Infestations?

The claim: As reported in the media, pubic lice are disappearing, and the Brazilian wax is the culprit. Articles cite statistics that pubic-hair removal is more popular among young people, and then jump to the conclusion that this trendy hairlessness is spurring a decrease in pubic-lice prevalence.

What the science says: The problem with this claim is that it isn’t backed by solid scientific data — it’s supported by anecdotes from doctors who have noticed a decline in pubic lice among their patients. As the saying goes, though, the plural of anecdote is not data: Without well-designed population studies spanning many years, we can’t actually know if there are fewer pubic lice today than there were before our groins were subjected en masse to depilation techniques. Furthermore, as that other saying goes, correlation does not equal causation: Even if there were a correlation between the Brazilian’s popularity and a decline in public lice, we would need more specialized data to determine if pubic-hair removal actually caused the lowly louse’s depopulation. Continue reading

STDs 101: An Introduction to Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Coupons for STD-screening discounts in April 2014 are available here.

It’s April, which for Arizonans means a gradual increase in temperature as we head toward summer. But at Planned Parenthood Arizona it also means that it’s time to focus on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in observance of STD Awareness Month. While we regularly provide information about sexual health with our monthly STD Awareness series, April is the time of year to fix the spotlight on sexually transmissible microbes and the infections they cause. April is also the time of year when Planned Parenthood Arizona offers coupons for discounted STD screening, so if you’ve been putting it off, now’s the time!

Symptoms of Sexually Transmitted Diseases

First, some basic facts. STDs can be transmitted through all sexual activities — vaginal, anal, or oral sex, as well as activities involving skin-to-skin contact. STDs are most commonly caused by viruses or bacteria, though they can be caused by other agents as well, including animals! Each STD is unique, with unique symptoms, but common symptoms include:

  • rashes, open sores, blisters, or warts in the genital area
  • swelling or tenderness
  • pus, bleeding, odor, or abnormal discharge
  • itching in the genital region
  • burning sensation during urination

It’s best not to focus too closely on symptoms, though — most people with STDs actually don’t experience any symptoms whatsoever! As they say in the biz, “The most common symptom of an STD is … no symptom.” For example, most people with herpes either have no symptoms or have mild symptoms that go unnoticed. Ten percent of males and 80 percent of females with gonorrhea don’t experience symptoms, and most people with chlamydia are asymptomatic. And HIV symptoms usually take a decade to show up. If you are, or have been, sexually active, you can’t assume that the absence of symptoms means you’re in the clear. To know for sure if you have an STD, the best thing you can do is to get yourself tested. Continue reading

STD Awareness: “Can I Get an STD from Oral Sex?”

As tools to reduce risk for STD transmission, dental dams are not to be ignored.

Editor’s Note: Other posts of interest to readers include: “Gonorrhea of the Throat,” “Oral Herpes,” “Can Oral Herpes Be Spread to Genitals?,” and “Can Oral Sex Cause Throat Cancer?

Many consider oral sex to be a safer form of sexual activity compared to vaginal or anal intercourse. For this reason, they might put less emphasis on the use of latex barriers, such as dental dams and condoms, during oral sex. Unfortunately, this idea is misguided and can lead to the transmission of preventable infections.

It is generally true that oral sex presents less of a risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) — but this risk is not trivial, especially when people are under the impression that they don’t need to use barrier methods during oral sex. Most sexually transmitted diseases can be passed along by oral sex, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis B, herpes (which can be transmitted back and forth from the mouth, as cold sores, to the genital region, as genital herpes), human papillomavirus (HPV), and HIV. Even pubic lice can be transferred from the genital region to eyelashes and eyebrows! Additionally, intestinal parasites are more likely to be transmitted via oral sex than through vaginal sex. A microscopic amount of fecal matter containing parasites can be infectious, and can be unknowingly ingested when present on genitals.


Seventy percent of adolescents who reported engaging in oral sex had never used a barrier to protect themselves from STDs during oral sex.


Some bacterial STDs, such as gonorrhea and syphilis, can do permanent damage if not treated in time. Furthermore, gonorrhea of the throat is much more difficult to treat than gonorrhea in the genital or rectal areas. And some viral STDs can’t be cured (such as herpes and HIV), while others can cause chronic infections that have been linked to cancer (such as hepatitis, which is associated with liver cancer, and HPV, which is associated with throat cancer as well as cervical cancer and anal cancer). Continue reading