Getting diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease (STD) can be overwhelming, and learning your partner has one is scary. You’re concerned about your partner’s well-being, of course, but now you’re worried about your own sexual health, too. Did your partner cheat? Will you get their STD? Will you both be able to have a normal sex life together?
Emily Samaha, MD, a family medicine physician at Winchester Family Physicians, often counsels couples about how to deal with an STD in a relationship.
“Sometimes it’s a new diagnosis, and both partners have questions,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a patient with a known diagnosis who has a new partner. Either way, it’s important for couples to have an open, honest conversation with each other and their doctors.”
When couples come to her for advice, Dr. Samaha offers six tips on how to deal with an STD in a relationship.
1. See Past the Stigma
Despite the misconceptions and stigmas associated with STDs, they’re very common. Eighty percent of sexually active people contract HPV, says the American Sexual Health Association, but because the virus is usually undetectable and clears up on its own within a few years, many people never know they have it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that approximately 1.1 million Americans have HIV, and that about one in six people between the ages of 14 and 49 has genital herpes.
“For couples dealing with a new diagnosis, you’re not alone,” Dr. Samaha said. “Plenty of people have gone through this. They’re OK, and they still have sex. It might be hard at first. Adjusting to anything new is hard, so communication is really important.”
2. Educate Yourself
One of the biggest hurdles Dr. Samaha encounters is confusion surrounding the prognosis, prevention and treatment of STDs.
“You need to know what [an STD] means for you,” she said. “Patients and their partners often turn to Google. There’s some good information out there, but there’s also a lot of incorrect or outdated information, which causes unnecessary anxiety and stress.”
The American Sexual Health Association, Planned Parenthood and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have the most accurate information, Dr. Samaha says. And she recommends that both partners talk to their primary physicians.
“Your partner’s doctor will have a better understanding of the diagnosis and thus how to prevent transmission,” she said. “Your primary care physician will better understand your medical history and risk factors and can help you make an individualized plan.”
3. Practice Safe Sex
Safety is simple, Dr. Samaha says: Always use a condom during sexual activity, including oral sex. Beyond that, her safety recommendations depend on the STD.
HPV: If you’re still eligible, get vaccinated. HPV is usually harmless and symptomless, but it can cause cervical cancer, so it’s important for women to get regular Pap smears.
Herpes: Herpes is most contagious during an outbreak; if you or your partner is experiencing an outbreak, Dr. Samaha says it’s best to completely abstain from sex, as herpes can be spread through skin-to-skin contact.
“Depending on your partner’s health and their regularity of outbreaks, they might be able to take a suppressive antiviral medicine like Valtrex to reduce the risk of transmitting it,” she said, adding that herpes can also be spread without any signs of an outbreak.
HIV: There is a prophylactic medication called Truvada for people at high risk of contracting HIV.
“If a patient has a partner with HIV,” Dr. Samaha said, “we usually recommend that the patient and partner meet with a physician to review the treatment plan, lab results, how well-controlled the HIV is and the partner’s health to determine whether Truvada would be a good option.”
4. Provide Emotional Support
Providing emotional support is critical, Dr. Samaha says. Start by just being there for your partner.
“It’s usually helpful when the partner comes to visits because they often ask good questions and help the patient remember questions that they had,” she said. “Beyond that, just be there to listen to their concerns. Give them space and time to vent, or to be alone if that’s what they need. Ask them how you can be helpful.”
“Most importantly,” she added, “if you plan to stay with your partner, make sure they know that you’re going to be by their side and support them through this, just like any serious medical illness.”
5. Don’t Jump to Conclusions
Just because your longtime partner suddenly has an STD doesn’t automatically mean that they’ve been cheating on you. People often live with STDs for many years without knowing it. With herpes, for example, Dr. Samaha says many people are exposed to it and never have an outbreak.
“Herpes, in particular, is challenging,” she said. “After you’re exposed, it lays dormant in your body and can be activated by stress or illness. That’s what leads to an outbreak, and then it goes back to being dormant.”
Her advice for people with a new diagnosis: Don’t jump to conclusions.
“Talk to your partner,” she said. “Be open. Be honest.”
6. Get Tested
Everyone, especially people starting a new relationship, should get tested for STDs. However, if your partner has an STD, you definitely want regular screenings. Dr. Samaha recommends talking to your doctor for a personalized plan of action.
“Every patient and their partner’s plan should be individualized,” she said. “Have a relationship with your doctor and touch base regularly. Practicing safe sex is also really important, whether your partner has an STD or not.”