Think You're Safe?

So you think you're disease-free. You got a clean bill of sexual health the last time you went to the doctor, your partner seems totally clean, and besides, the two of you haven't even slept together yet.

With all the emphasis on "safe sex," you may be surprised to learn that even kissing, manual (hand-to-genitals), and oral sex can pass along sexually transmitted diseases. Don't assume you're totally safe just because you haven't gone all the way.

Here's what you need to know to keep from contracting a sexlessly transmitted disease:

  • "Use as much protection as you can, particularly early in a relationship," says Duncan Turner, M.D., an OB/GYN in private practice in Santa Barbara, California. This means using a barrier method each and every time you engage in oral sex or sexual activity in which you and your partner's genitals are in contact (up to and including intercourse). For oral sex, use condoms (try the flavored ones) or dental dams (you can improvise by using a sheet of plastic wrap or even a condom that's slit from top to bottom and spread out).

  • Wash your hands before and after sexual contact. This simple common sense move can help reduce the risk that you'll catch (or give) an infection or disease to (or from) your partner.

  • Urinate after any sexual contact. "If there's no barrier protection, emptying your bladder afterwards can at least help a little-you'll reduce your risk of a bladder infection or a yeast infection," says Turner.

  • Get screened for STDs every six months if you're having any type of unprotected sexual contact (whether or not you have intercourse).

It's not that often that partners pass along diseases through foreplay, but that doesn't mean it's not as serious when it does happen. "People don't take these diseases as seriously as they should," says Turner. Regardless of how you got 'em, certain diseases can sterilize, sicken and even kill you.

Here's a quick look at some of the VD that even virgins are at risk for.

Gonorrhea How you can get it: Oral sex. How common it is: 325,000 new cases a year in the U.S.* The symptoms: Sometimes none, otherwise pain and discharge. Is it serious? Besides being painful, untreated gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancies and conjunctivitis in women, and arthritis in men.

Syphilis How you can get it: Oral sex, contact with an open sore. How common it is: 40,000 cases a year. The symptoms: A painless ulcer that disappears over time, sometimes accompanied or followed by a rash. Is it serious? It's easily treated, but many people think the disease is gone just because the initial sores have healed. Left untreated, it can kill you.

Herpes Simplex How you can get it: Kissing, oral sex. How common it is: half a million cases a year. The symptoms: Painful lesions that go away and reappear, usually on your mouth or genitals. Most of the time the oral virus is passed to your partner's mouth and the genital virus to the genitals, but in some cases it is transmitted via oral-genital contact. Is it serious? Not deadly. The virus never goes away, and can be spread even when you don't have sores.

Human Papillomavirus How you can get it: Hand-genital contact. How common it is: 500,000 to a million cases each year. The symptoms: often there aren't any; there may be warts on the genitals, or pain. Is it serious? It is if it leads to cancer. Some of the 70 types of HPV actually cause cervical cancer (this is one of the most important reasons to get regular exams if you're a woman).

Scabies and Pubic Lice (crabs) How you can get it: skin-to-skin contact. How common it is: Unknown. The symptoms: Scabies are small, pimple-like bumps caused by tiny mites spread through close contact. They itch a lot, particularly after you exercise and in the evenings. Lice are small insects that are spread the same way, usually on your head but sometimes in your pubic hair (aka crabs). Is it serious? No, but ask anyone who's had either one: the itching is enough to drive you crazy.

HIV How you can get it: oral sex. How common it is: 120,000 new cases last year. The symptoms: sometimes none, some people come down with what seems like mono or the flu within a few weeks of infection. Is it serious? You should know the answer to this one>HIV causes AIDS, for which there's no known cure.

Hepatitis A and B How you can get it: kissing or oral sex (in rare cases). How common it is: 125,000 to 250,000 cases a year of Hep A; 140,000 to 320,000 of Hep B. The symptoms: jaundice, fatigue, nausea and vomiting. Is it serious? Generally treatable, but can be fatal in rare cases. Safe and effective vaccines exist for both Hepatitis A and B. Hepatitis B vaccine is currently recommended for everyone and Hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for people at high risk, i.e., world travelers and men engaging in sex with men.

Resources To find a low-cost clinic near you or more about any of the diseases above, log onto Planned Parenthood's site.

*Source for all figures is the Centers for Disease Control in Bethesda, MD.