With safer sex resources and sex education more accessible than ever thanks to the internet, it can be easy to assume that sexually transmitted infections are old news. But you might be surprised to learn that despite advancements in barrier methods, birth control, and other prevention methods, many STI rates have risen considerably over the last few years.

According to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)1, overall STIs grew by 7% in 2021, reaching 2.5 million cases. The most notable increases were seen in case counts of syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea.

What does this “explosion” look like? Why is this happening? How can you protect yourself? Let’s talk about all of that and more! 

Let’s talk numbers

The highest increases in infection numbers were seen in the case counts of syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea, which are curable bacterial infections. Let’s take a look at the numbers, which come from data that the CDC tracked from 2020-20212.

  • Syphilis rates increased by 32%

It is common for people to not know they have syphilis because they are asymptomatic. If left untreated, syphilis can cause serious health problems, including irreversible neurological and cardiovascular conditions, that could be life threatening.

Cases of congenital syphilis – when a pregnant person passes the infection to their fetus during pregnancy – also increased. Congenital syphilis can cause fetal or infant death.

  • Chlamydia rates increased nearly 4%

Though it is the most commonly reported STI in the United States, 75% of chlamydia infections in cisgender women and 50% in cisgender men have no symptoms. Left untreated, chlamydia can cause complications like epididymitis, pelvic inflammatory disease, and infertility, and it can lead to permanent damage of the reproductive organs.

  • Gonorrhea rates increased more than 4%

Gonorrhea is especially common among people aged 15-24 years and often has no noticeable symptoms. It can cause infection in the genitals, rectum, and throat. If left untreated, gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (an infection that can affect the uterus, uterine tubes, and/or ovaries) or infertility. There have been cases of treatment-resistant gonorrhea in the U.S.

Why is this happening?

There are several reasons for the increase in STI rates. To start, most people in the U.S. did not receive accurate and comprehensive sex education in school and lack access to it in adulthood. Rates also were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which strained resources and made it difficult or impossible to have regular STI testing, sexual health screenings, and in-clinic visits.

How can you protect yourself?

To reduce the risk of an STI infection, there are some key pieces of information to consider. First, get familiar with how STIs can be passed on to others:

  1. Avoid sexual activities that involve exchange of bodily fluids. Semen, pre-ejaculate (pre-cum), blood, vaginal fluids, and anal fluids can carry STIs. Breast milk can also carry HIV.
  2. Avoid skin-to-skin contact (sexual or otherwise). Skin contact can transmit many STIs regardless of whether bodily fluids are present.
  3. Avoid contact with sores or growths caused by STIs. Be aware that these will not always be clearly visible, especially when they are newly emerging or receding.
  4. Read this article to learn more about safer sex and risk reduction methods[LINK TO ARTICLE 1]. 

Second, get familiar with what safer sex can look like, including the barrier methods that are made to reduce contact with bodily fluids and skin [LINK TO ARTICLE 1].


Knowing that STI rates in the U.S. are increasing might feel scary, but information is power. There are many ways to enjoy sexual activities with others while reducing the risks of infection, just like we do when going to work or socializing during cold and flu season. They may not completely 100% reduce the risk, but as with many things in life, almost everything we do carries some level of risk of an outcome we’d prefer to avoid.


In addition to getting regular STI tests and screenings, exploring prescription options like PrEP, choosing barrier methods for the kinds of sex you plan to have, and educating yourself is an important part of the process. And you’re doing that part right now!



1 https://www.cdc.gov/std/statistics/2021/overview.htm


2 https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2023/s0411-sti.html


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