Love on the road is a very common thing. For some it’s all “Flags & Shags” while others find “true love.” Travelers who engage in unprotected sex abroad run a relatively high risk for acquiring a sexually transmitted disease (STD) such as gonorrhea, chlamydial urethritis, syphilis, cancroids, and herpes, as well as HIV and hepatitis B and C.

Travelers often feel less inhibited when away from home and they may be more likely to engage in risky sexual practices. However, some groups of travelers have a higher likelihood of risky encounters; these include: long-term travelers, individuals traveling alone or with partners other than their families, and business travelers. Additionally, international travelers are more likely to have contact with commercial sex workers and other segments of the local population who have high rates of STDs. Remember, the more partners you have the more risk you put yourself at – travelers and STD’s are as common as tequila in Mexico.

Symptoms may be nonexistent or can be extremely varied (for example: vaginal discharge, pelvic pain, discharge from the urethra, swelling of the scrotum, genital ulcers, and a mass in the groin area). Most incubation periods are relatively short, ranging from a few days to a few weeks; however, hepatitis B and HIV can remain asymptomatic for long periods of time.

The best way to prevent catching an STD is to abstain from sexual activity. If you choose to be sexually active, limit the number of contacts with a potentially high-risk partner and limit the number of new sexual partners. This may not always be a realistic recommendation…

Travelers should be aware that many STDs produce no symptoms, thus making it difficult to know if a partner is infected. Travelers should also avoid sex in situations of high risk, such as those that involve sex for drugs or money in areas with high rates of STDs.

  • Use a new, high quality condom for each act of intercourse. Both male and female travelers should know how to use condoms properly and should be aware that condoms do not entirely eliminate the risk of HIV transmission. Latex condoms are preferred when possible as they provide a higher protective efficacy than “natural” condoms made from animal membranes. Pack an adequate supply of good quality condoms, even if you don’t definitely plan on having sex abroad, because the quality and availability of latex condoms in some areas is unpredictable. (The same applies to water-based lubricants and spermicides, which can be even more difficult to find at some overseas destinations.) Protect condoms from sun or temperature extremes.
  • Limit consumption of alcohol. Alcohol is a significant factor in many sexual encounters, so limit your intake of alcohol when traveling, especially when in a situation that might lead to a sexual encounter.
  • Consider vaccination against hepatitis B virus. The only STD for which an effective vaccine is available is hepatitis B. This vaccine is recommended for nonimmune long-term travelers and individuals who plan to have sexual contact with the local population at their destination. Ask your health care provider to discuss whether you should be vaccinated against the hepatitis B virus.
  • Be aware of the possibility of rape, particularly if the itinerary includes remote destinations or areas of civil unrest. The risk of acquiring STDs, especially HIV, is higher after rape than after consensual sex, due to trauma, bleeding, higher rates of preexisting STDs, exposure to multiple assailants, and exposure through multiple receptor sites. Identify health care facilities at the destination that could provide comprehensive care in the event of rape — including consultation on the need for antiretroviral drugs for HIV post-exposure prophylaxis. Especially in developing countries, HIV antiretroviral treatment may not be available, and the traveler would need to travel to a more sophisticated medical facility or return home for treatment.