This sucks — you’ve been diagnosed with an STD or STI, and realize that you may have exposed your sexual partner(s) to it. You’re in a stressful situation. Either you really care about this person you’re worried that you’ve gotten them sick, or you don’t care so much about this person and you really don’t want to make “that” phone call. It’s never easy, but it’s also not as bad as it seems. We’re going to walk you through the three things you need to do now.
Step 1: Understand your diagnosis.
First things first. Do you understand your diagnosis? Can you spell it well enough to Google it? Do you know if it’s curable or not, and what you need to do next for your health? Do you know what part of your body it is affecting and which parts it’s not? If not, find out. This is actually an important part of informing your partners. You don’t want to spread misinformation. You want to be as informed as possible before you inform others.
People catch — and fully recover from — things like gonorrhea and chlamydia all the time. These can be easy to recover from with the right treatment. If you wait too long or leave something untreated, they can become worse, or even cause permanent damage.
Some sexually transmitted diseases are not curable. Viral infections, such as HPV, Hepatitis B, HSV-1, HSV-2, and HIV are not currently curable. But just because these are incurable doesn’t mean they’re devastating. Herpes is a mild skin condition, and really not a big deal (though active outbreaks during childbirth introduce risk.) HIV is no longer a death sentence like it used to be. People with HIV can, and do, live long and happy lives with healthy sexual relationships. HIV requires ongoing medical treatment and daily medication, similar to what people with Type 1 diabetes deal with. (And you may already be vaccinated against Hepatitis B and HPV. Check with your doctor about your vaccination status.)
Even if you didn’t “go all the way” with someone, there are still activities that could result in transmission
You should also be aware of whether you’re diagnosed with a disease (STD) or an infection (STI.) These are not the same thing. It’s popular to only use the term STI and not say STD, as some people think the reference to “disease” is stigmatizing. However, “disease” and “infection” are actually different medical terms, so STI and STD are not interchangeable. It’s important to know what you’re dealing with. For example, HIV is an infection, and the potential resulting disease is AIDS. Being HIV positive does not mean you have AIDS.
Here is some informative medical information about the 8 most common STDs and STIs:
- Syphilis — curable!
- Gonorrhoea — curable for now
- Chlamydia — curable!
- Trichomoniasis — curable!
- Hepatitis B — not curable, but vaccine exists!
- Herpes (HSV) — not curable yet
- HIV — not curable yet
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV) — technically not curable yet, but vaccine exists and 90% of infections clear up naturally within 2 years.
Step 2. Figure out who you need to inform.
Write down a list of people who may need to be informed.
This list might be longer than you’d like to admit, but you need to make sure you inform everyone who may be affected.
The sooner you inform your partner, the less risk they are taking, and the less chance they have of transmitting it to others.
Even if you didn’t “go all the way” with someone, there are still activities that could result in transmission, and this varies by diagnosis. You’ll need to learn the basics of how your diagnosis is transmitted. Talk to you doctor about what sexual activities you’ve engaged in if you’re not sure who to call.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your doctor about this, find another doctor you can trust. Or drive to a doctor in another town that you’ll never see again. You do you, but you have to do this.
I had to do this once too. I was diagnosed with HPV and had to call someone I didn’t know that well or plan to sleep with again. He didn’t think less of me; in fact, he was very grateful that I called. The next time I saw him, we had a pleasant conversation about something totally unrelated.
Figure out how you are going to inform each person on the list.
Look up the contact information you have for these people, and figure out the best way to inform each of them. Your boyfriend? Order pizza and tell him on the couch. Someone you had a one night stand with at a conference? Go dig up their business card or find them on Linkedin.
Step 3: Inform your partner(s).
Unfortunately, this is a time sensitive problem. The sooner you inform your partner, the less risk they are taking, and the less chance they have of transmitting it to others. So you do have to act fast.
There are ways to inform your partners and remain anonymous. If at all possible, we really encourage you to speak directly with your partners.
It’s okay if you can’t do it the minute you find out. You shouldn’t be trying to do this while having a panic attack or overcome with anger. Give yourself the time you need to process. Processing what this means for your health will make sure you are more informed and better able to answer questions when you do inform partners. This means both of you will be empowered with accurate information to make sure you are taking the best care of yourselves possible.
As soon as you have collected yourself and feel confident that you understand your diagnosis, you need to inform your sexual partners. Try not to wait more than 48 hours after your diagnosis before doing this.
What you need to tell them:
The goal is to give your partner(s) accurate information so they can take care of their health.
- Clearly communicate your diagnosis. Make sure you clearly communicate what your diagnosis is. Here’s an example: “I’ve been diagnosed with genital HSV-2, which is commonly known as genital Herpes.”
- Tell them when you were diagnosed. This helps them know who else they may need to inform. Also, chances are that you had no idea about this when hooking up with this person. They’ll feel a lot better to know that you wouldn’t have put them at risk if you had known.
- Tell them how this might affect them. If you didn’t “go all the way,” they might assume they don’t need to be tested. But transmission doesn’t require penetration. You may have to educate them about how this might affect them. Here’s an example: “Since you went down on me the other day, there’s a chance that you were exposed, even though we didn’t have sex.”
- Tell them to get tested. State that they will need to see a doctor to be tested to know whether they are also positive. “I needed to tell you so that you can be tested. Just because you were exposed does not mean that you have it too, but you should be sure. Here’s a link of places where you can be tested: http://bit.ly/sti-resources.”
- Answer their questions. Be ready to answer their questions. Do your best, but if you don’t know an answer, that’s okay — tell them to ask a doctor.
That’s all you have to do. It’s actually a pretty straightforward and short conversation.
If you sound nervous and upset, the person you’re talking to will probably also get nervous and upset. If you sound calm, cool, and collected, the other person will probably stay calm, too.
You don’t need to apologize.
You don’t have to apologize unless you want to. There’s nothing “bad” about being diagnosed with an STD or STI. And you don’t have to tell them who you think you got it from or how many other people you need to call. All you must do is inform them. Chances are, this person will be grateful that you told them, not angry.
Your health and safety come first. If you believe that someone will hurt you if you disclose this information, do not put yourself in danger. There are ways to inform your partners and remain anonymous. If you can inform anonymously and stay safe, please try to use these anonymous disclosure options:
If you do not believe there is any safe way to inform your partner without retaliation, don’t. That is the one and only excuse for not informing your partners.
If at all possible, we really encourage you to speak directly with your partners. Only inform them anonymously as a last resort. Being direct ensures that they don’t misunderstand what’s going on. It also gives them an opportunity to ask clarifying questions that might be very important to their health. For example, if they don’t know who contacted them, they might not realize how long ago they were exposed, and timing of treatment matters.
We are proud of you for doing the right thing. It’s not always easy. We hope we’ve empowered you with all the resources you need to inform your partners. And if you have suggestions for other resources that should be included here, please email us.