We should treat COVID more like an STI

Proactive protection has never looked so snazzy. Bru-nO via Pixabay, manipulated by Holly Funk

How both proactive and reactive strategies can be borrowed to improve awareness and action

COVID-19 and STIs are obviously different in the ways that they spread. To start, STIs aren’t airborne viruses; you generally need unprotected contact with another person’s saliva, blood, or genitals. No contact is necessary for COVID to spread, just the virus finding a way by air and moisture into an unprotected mouth, nose, or eye.

They are different in number, as there are many more types of STI than variants of COVID. We’ve also had many decades of medical attention on and investigation into STIs (to one degree of accuracy or another), whereas research specifically on COVID is still a budding area with widespread awareness of the virus being only about three years underway.

One major factor the two have in common is their ability to infect people without the person necessarily displaying symptoms of infection. In an article for NPR, Pien Huang outlined specifically in reference to COVID that “Asymptomatic coronavirus carriers are hard to find and study – because people usually get tested for the coronavirus only if they think they may have it.” Though it’s been clearly established since nearly the start of this pandemic that infections can begin as or even continue for their duration as asymptomatic – and that they can be spread to others while the host is asymptomatic – many people disregard and only take caution in the form of reactionary measures if they recognize symptoms.

            Similarly, the most standard experience when an STI first sets in is the absence of symptoms. It takes some time for an infection or virus to reproduce enough that its effects can be observed and noted, but within that time the body can still experience harm, even if symptoms are never experienced and the individual has no idea they were infected in the first place.

            Roughly two years ago I wrote an article on sexual education and STIs for the Carillon, and interviewed local sex educator Taryn Wahl who noted that asymptomatic but untreated syphilis can lead to organ failure, and chlamydia and gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility.

The good news is that all STIs either have treatments or cures available; the bad news is that an STI must be known about in order to be treated and/or cured, and the arguably worse news is that the STI will have ample opportunity to spread if proper precautions aren’t taken during sexual encounters because there’s no awareness of the infection. While treatments and cures for COVID are still very much in the works, it is true that an infected person will likely spread their infection much more if they don’t know of it and aren’t taking proper precautions anyway.

While COVID doesn’t require sexual contact to spread, its spread when undetected happens in a much similar sense, and the spread of the virus can be protected against in a much similar sense as well. When it comes to STIs, the most effective proactive methods of defense are things like condoms, dental dams, and rubber gloves. These help to prevent saliva, sexual fluids, and blood from spreading from one person to another, and can minimize physical contact for STIs that are spread through skin contact with an infected area.

For proactive methods against COVID, we have things like masks that work in the same way to block entry points the virus could use to enter someone’s body. The issue seems to be then, just like with condom use, that proactive measures against virus spread aren’t that commonly engaged with.

Another method to prevent the spread of STIs is regular testing, which Wahl recommended every three to six months or with each new sexual partner; whichever happens first. While some STIs such as HIV can take up to three months post-infection to show a positive test result, getting tested can ensure that should an unknown infection spring to awareness, it can be dealt with properly to protect the person infected and those they may come in contact with. Since STIs are normally asymptomatic at debut, it’s essential to engage in regular testing regardless of whether symptoms are present. Symptoms indicate that you are already infected and have been infectious for some time; they rarely if ever indicate the actual start of the infection.

In much the same way, COVID tests can be used as a regular check. Just like condoms can break and STIs still spread even when precautions are taken, masks and social distancing do not guarantee prevention. They are preventative measures, but infections can still occur, so it’s important to test normally even if you’re one who follows the utmost of precautions.

If we’re to follow a similar model with COVID, testing should be done within a specific frequency of time or with each potential occasion when a new infection could have occurred, whichever happens first. By testing regularly, whether it be for STIs at a clinic or for COVID-19 at home, you’ll be quicker to notice when infections may hit – even when they’re still asymptomatic – and will be better prepared to protect the people you care about.


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