Basic Risk Factors for HIV and Sexually Transmitted Diseases

If there is anything positive to say about sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s) it’s that there are many things you can do to protect yourself from them. By being aware of the main risk factors that you can control, it’s possible to stay healthy without having to resort to abstinence.

Below are the nine core risk factors for STD’s and HIV and what you should know about each:

Unprotected Sex

Although using a condom or other barrier method of birth control isn’t a guarantee you won’t become infected with a sexually transmitted organism, it’s a highly effective way to protect yourself. Even bugs like the human papillomavirus (HPV), which condoms are less effective against, have reduced transmission rates when condoms are used. Other than abstinence, consistent and proper condom use, which means using an accurately applied condom every time you have sex, is the best way to prevent STD’s and HIV.

Multiple Partners

The more partners you have, the more likely it is that you will be exposed to an STD including HIV. Furthermore, people with multiple partners tend to choose partners with multiple partners, so each individual you are having sex with is probably more likely to have an infection than someone with whom you would choose to be monogamous.

Being Under 25 Years Old or Being Female

Young people are far more likely to be infected with STD’s and HIV than older people for several reasons. First, young women are more biologically susceptible to these infections than older women. Their bodies are smaller, and they are more likely to experience tearing during intercourse.

Their cervixes also aren’t fully developed and are more susceptible to infection by chlamydia, gonorrhea, and other STD’s.

Finally, young people are more likely to engage in sexual risk taking, particularly if they’ve been drinking alcohol, and are more likely to have multiple partners.

Alcohol Use

Drinking can be bad for your sexual health in many different ways. People who use alcohol on a regular basis, particularly in social situations, may be less discriminating about whom they choose to have sex with. Alcohol lowers inhibitions. It may also make it more difficult to convince a sexual partner to use a condom or to use one condom correctly.

Illicit Drug Use

Illicit drug use can make decision making difficult. People who have sex under the influence are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, such as having sex without a condom or other form of protection. Drugs may also make it easier for someone to pressure you into engaging in sexual behaviors. Furthermore, injection drug use, in particular, is associated with increased risk of blood borne diseases such as HIV and hepatitis.

Trading Sex for Money or Drugs

People who trade sex for money or drugs may not be sufficiently empowered to negotiate for safe sex. And partners acquired in this manner are far more likely to be infected than people in the general population.

It is important to note that some sex workers, particularly those who have made an informed choice to enter their professions, are highly conscientious about safe sex and prevention. Risk varies according to individual behaviors, just as it does for people who don’t engage in commercial sex.

Serial Monogamy

Some people only date one person at a time but still date a large number of people each year. This is referred to as serial monogamy. The danger for people who practice serial monogamy is that each time they are involved in an “exclusive” sexual relationship, they are likely to be tempted to stop using safer sex precautions. But monogamy is only an effective way to prevent infections in long term relationships where both of you have been tested. Since some tests aren’t reliable until you’ve been infected for some time, many serially monogamous relationships don’t last long enough for that to even be a viable option.

Having an STD Including HIV

Having one infection frequently makes you more susceptible to multiple infections. Skin that is irritated, inflamed, or blistered is easier for another pathogen to infect. Having an infection is also an indirect reflection of your risk of new infections. Since you were exposed once already, it suggests that other factors in your lifestyle may be putting you at risk.

Using Birth Control Pills as Your Sole Form of Contraception

For many people, the biggest worry about having sex isn’t contracting an STD including HIV, its pregnancy. Many heterosexual couples choose birth control pills as their primary form of contraception. However, once protected from pregnancy, some people are reluctant to use condoms as part of their sexual routine. This can be because they are afraid of implying their partner has a disease. Or they may just not like using condoms. Dual protection – using both birth control pills and condoms – is the best option.

(Made possible by Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, reviewed by Susan Olender, MD, updated August 02, 2018)

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