What Are My Odds of an STD?

Understanding Risk and Risk Reduction

What are the odds getting an STD if you have sex with a specific type of person in a specific sort of way? How high are the risks? Is it possible to lower those odds? Is there any way to be 100 percent protected from sexually transmitted diseases? 

Many people are concerned about the chances of getting an STD. Unfortunately, it's hard to give an easy answer to any given person's level of risk. That's because there are a lot of things that factor into the likelihood of getting an STD during any sexual encounter. 

Contributing Risk Factors

The odds of getting an STD depend on a number of factors. These include:

  • How you have sex (manual, anal, vaginal, oral)
  • How many partners you have
  • What type of encounters you have
  • Whether you practice safe sex
  • How consistently you use condoms or other barriers
  • If you use barriers for intercourse only or oral sex as well
  • Whether you use lubricants and what kinds you use
  • Whether your partner has an STD and, if so, what type
  • The severity of your partner's infection (as measured by viral load and other factors)
  • Your overall health and the health of your immune system
  • Whether you have breaks in your skin, infections, or other STDs that make you more susceptible to infection

Assuming all of these things are known, it would seem like it would be simple to give you a risk assessment. Scientists would simply need to know the odds of transmitting the STD in question, the particular type of sex you're having, and other variables that may increase or decrease your risk. Then they could give you an idea of the actual odds of getting an STD from any particular sexual encounter.

The problem is that scientists don't actually have data that is anywhere near that detailed. 

Why Determining Risk Is So Hard

This is not to suggest that there is no available data. For example, there is some research into the odds of transmitting HIV during various types of intercourse. There is even data that can tell you likely it is to pass herpes while you are on suppressive therapy.

However, it's difficult to design a study that will tell scientists exactly how likely it is that an STD will be transmitted any particular time during sex. Doing so would require large numbers of people having sex with people whose infection status was known. They'd have to keep accurate logs of their sexual encounters, and they would have to be tested on a regular basis. 

That isn't practical. It's also not ethical, except in situations where people would be exposed to those risks anyway. 

Furthermore, people infected with all the STDs of interest would have to be included in the study to see how those diseases spread. Even if all those things were possible, the data still would have problems.

For example, tests take a while to show when someone is positive for an STD. That makes it hard to tell how many times they engaged in a particular act before getting infected. 

In the end, a doctor cannot tell you the odds of getting an STD. A doctor can only tell you whether an activity is risky and how to reduce your personal risk of infection.

They can test you and encourage you to seek test results from partners. They can help you figure out how to make the sex you're having safer. What they can't do is give you the odds of contracting an STD, since they don't know what they are

Risk Reduction

We may be unable to pinpoint the statistics on getting an STD. We do, however, know a lot about how to lower those odds, no matter what they are.

For one, you can be more aware of the risk you're undertaking by regularly getting screened for STDs. You can also talk to your partner before you have sex. Having this information can help you make smarter decisions about your sexual play. You can also reduce your risk by reliably practicing safe sex.

How to Reduce Your Risk

  • Use condoms correctly and consistently.
  • Have fewer sexual partners.
  • Discuss STDs with any sex partner you have.
  • Explore mutual monogamy.
  • Get vaccinated for HPV and hepatitis B.
  • Get tested for STDs and seek treatment if infected.
  • Encourage your sex partners to get tested.
  • Consider abstinence.

Embracing Safer Sex

Safer sex isn't a one-time thing. Ideally, it means using a barrier method every time you engage in sex, whether vaginal, anal, or oral. Barrier methods such as condoms or dental dams are not 100 percent effective. They do, however, dramatically decrease your risk of contracting an STD.

Only having sex within the context of a mutually monogamous relationship can also improve your odds of remaining STD-free. That's particularly true if both you and your partner continue to be regularly screened for STDs and have open communication about your test results.

Finally, remember that using a contraceptive may protect against pregnancy, but contraceptives don't necessarily protect against infections. Oral contraceptive pills and IUDs are great pregnancy protection, but they need to be used with barriers to protect against STD transmission. 

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