STD rates reach a record high—here’s how to stay safe

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The mere mention of the acronym “STD” is scary enough to have even the lowest-risk individuals running to their doctors for confirmation that all is well down there.

This is likely the intended consequence of the terrifying billboards I’ve been seeing all over Los Angeles, screaming (quite graphically, too) about syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases. There’s a very good reason they’ve been cropping up as of late—reported STD cases have reached record highs in California. Last year, 300,000 cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and early syphilis were reported, which is a whopping 45 percent increase in the last five years. (Deletes all dating apps while googling “convent life.”)

California’s not the only place in trouble, however; the Center for Disease Prevention and Control says the United States is experiencing what it calls an STI (sexually-transmitted infection) epidemic. Reported cases nationwide of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and early syphilis were the highest ever on record in 2016.

So, how do you stay safe without actually taking a vow of chastity? After all, sex is good for you. Below, experts weigh in on how to go above and beyond the condom.

Talk to your partner

“All partnered sex involves some degree of risk with regard to sexually transmitted infections,” says Jess O’Reilly, PhD, Astroglide’s resident sexologist.

This is due in part to the fact that the most common methods of prevention are not fail-safe. “Condoms do not prevent against STDs transmitted by skin-to-skin contact,” says Jamin Brahmbhatt, MD, urologist and sexual health expert at Orlando Regional Medical Center. “The areas the condom covers can protect both partners from [covered] things that are on the penis; however, if there are sores or lesions—from things like HPV or genital herpes—on the genitals not covered by the condom, they can be transmitted.”

So, talking to your partner about their STI status before sleeping with them can be a critical part of prevention. “Start with yourself: Tell them about your testing routine,” suggests Dr. O’Reilly. “‘I was tested two months ago, how about you?'” A new app called Social Health Registry hopes to make this conversation easier, but if you’re uncomfortable taking such personal information online, there’s no reason you can’t discuss results face-to-face. And if you really want to play it safe? Don’t take your partner’s word on their status: Make them show you current test results before you hit the sheets. It may seem like a buzzkill, but chlamydia is way worse.