Teens and STDs: Common Myths

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 25, 2012
From the WebMD Archives

Do you know if you can get an STD the first time you have sex? Have you heard that you can catch one by sitting on a toilet seat? Does having sex in a hot tub protect against STDs?

WebMD asked Gail Bolan, MD, director of the CDC's Division of STD Prevention, to clear up some common myths about STDs. She also has some important advice to help teens protect themselves every time they have sex.

Only trashy or slutty people get STDs.

No. These infections are equal opportunity. If you're having sexual activity and you're not using condoms consistently and correctly, everyone's at risk for these infections. And you cannot have any way to tell who's infected or who's not infected. The only way you really can know is by having everybody go in and get checked by a health care provider and tested to see if they're infected.

Only adults get STDs.

The myth is actually the opposite. Younger people, especially young girls…are at higher risk for STDs and they've got the most to lose, because they’re the ones who have their reproductive years ahead of them. There are some biological factors that actually put young people, especially young women, at a much higher risk of acquiring some of these STDs….which can lead to infertility and other serious upper reproductive tract problems for girls.

I can't catch an STD from having oral or anal sex.

A lot of teenage girls…think that if you're not having vaginal sex that you're not really at risk for these infections. But if you're exposed to any kind of body fluid, you can transmit these infections.

The skin inside the mouth and rectum are not as tough as the skin on the outside of our body. So it's much easier for infections to be transmitted. We know that the transmission rate of these infections is just as high for oral and anal sex as it is for vaginal sex.

You can get an STD from a toilet seat.

That's another myth that I still, to this day hear people saying is true. But it's not. In general, these organisms don't survive outside of the human body for very long. We do not believe that toilet seats are harboring viruses or bacteria--that when you sit down you can acquire these kinds of infections.

You can't get an STD if you only have sex once.

If you have sex once with a partner who's got chlamydia, gonorrhea, or syphilis, you've got about a 30% chance you're going to pick up the infection that one time. That’s a very high infection rate. The consequences, particularly for young girls, are so significant that it’s important that everyone understands that once is definitely enough to transmit STDs.

If you have sex in a hot tub or pool, the chlorine or heat will kill any STD you might catch.

We don't think the temperature of the water or the dilution of the chlorine is likely to kill sperm or STDs. Again, we really recommend that if they're worried about acquiring infections, even if they're having sex in a hot tub, that they should be using condoms consistently and correctly.

Two condoms are better than one.

I think generally our society believes two is better than one. The problem is that the way condoms are designed, using two condoms at the same time could actually do more harm than good. It could cause some friction between the condoms that ... could actually cause more breakage and leakage. So we like to let everyone know, especially teens, to keep it simple. Just use one condom each and every time you have sex.

Viruses can get through some of the natural skin condoms, so they don't protect against all sexually transmitted infections. We recommend the latex -- or polyurethane, which tend to be more expensive but need to be used by people who have latex allergies.

It's important that teens recognize that the condom needs to be put on as soon as there’s an erection. Not waiting until there's been a little foreplay, because there's ejaculate that can be released that can cause both STDs and unplanned pregnancies.

Even though it's so important to use a condom consistently and correctly, many teens don't know how. Health care providers, teen clinics, and educational materials can provide information on how to use a condom properly.

You can only get the same STD once.

For the viral STDs like HIV and herpes, once you're infected you're infected for life. But we do know that you can get other strains of the same virus if you're continuing to have unprotected sex.

It’s very important for people to know, once they've had chlamydia, gonorrhea, or syphilis and they have been treated and cured, they are now susceptible again. Especially in young girls, the second time you have chlamydia there's more damage to your reproductive tract. Once they've been treated they need to practice safe sex so that they don't get infected again.

You can only catch herpes when the other person is having an outbreak.

We used to say, it's only when you have that sore that you need to worry about transferring the herpes virus. We now have a number of studies that have shown that people still are shedding the herpes virus after the sore clears, so they can still transmit it to a partner. We also know that there are people who have never had symptoms of herpes that carry herpes. They can be shedding virus and transmitting it to a partner.

If I have an STD, I'll just take antibiotics and it will go away.

For the bacterial STDs, it is true that antibiotics are highly effective. About 95% or 98% of the time when you take the antibiotic your infection will go away. But sometimes damage has already been done if you've already had the infection for a while before you got treated.

Viral STDs are harder to treat. We use antiviral medication…but they don't cure the infections. They just make the symptoms less and make the virus less transmissible. Once you are off your medication for herpes and sometimes for HIV, your virus can increase and you can be more likely to transmit it to a partner.

We've seen declines in both mortality [death] and the complications of AIDS because we have much better treatments now. But the AIDS drugs do have a lot of side effects. For many people, they need to be taken for long periods of time. AIDS is complicated and we still believe that the best treatment for HIV is to prevent becoming infected to begin with.

To learn more about STD testing, visit