Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Defined

OVERVIEW

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are passed from person to person through vaginal, oral or anal sexual contact. STDs can cause minor health problems as well as life-threatening disease, especially in women and infants. Some possible issues can include pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, cervical cancer and HIV infection.

young couple laying in bedThere are over 20 different kinds of STDs that are caused either by bacteria or viruses. Those caused by bacteria often can be treated with prescribed antibiotics, although antibiotic resistance is making this more difficult. STDs caused by viruses may be treatable, but are usually incurable. Examples of STDs with no cure include genital herpes, genital warts, HPV and HIV/AIDS.

The only way to ensure protection against STDs is to avoid any sexual contact. If you are sexually active, you can greatly reduce your risk for STDs by practicing safe sex during every sexual encounter. Safe sex means using a condom every time, knowing your own and your partner’s STD status, and having regular STD screenings.

SYMPTOMS

Due to the variety of STDs, there also are many different possible symptoms one can experience. Some common symptoms of STDs include the following:

  • Unusual and abnormal discharge from the penis or vagina
  • Genital warts or sores in the pubic region
  • Burning sensation while urinating
  • Itching and redness in the genital area
  • Anal itching, bleeding and soreness

For more serious STDs, such as HIV/AIDS, symptoms may be flu-like and appear more severe. These signs may include the following:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Enlarged lymph nodes in the neck or groin area

There are many other possible symptoms that may accompany STDs. If you notice any abnormalities in or near your genitals, notify your doctor and sexual partner. Get tested as soon as you can to jumpstart the necessary treatment.

STD Poster_sexually transmitted diseases_cdcDIAGNOSIS

Early diagnosis of an STD lowers the risk of spreading the disease. It also can limit the lingering effects of the condition. If untreated, STDs can develop into serious health concerns, such as brain damage, cancer, heart disease, birth defects, blindness, infertility and death, among others.

If you suspect you have an STD, contact your doctor for a full physical examination and STD screening. Blood tests and swab cultures (such as a PAP smear for females) can aid doctors in figuring out what STD you may have contracted.

Your doctor may not be able to detect an STD without your complete honesty about your sexual and medical histories. Your doctor will never discuss your sexual history with anyone else.

TREATMENTS

There are more than 20 different different types of STDs that are caused by either bacteria or virus. STDs caused by bacteria are usually curable, while those caused by viruses can be treated but not cured.

STDs caused by bacteria — such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis and syphilis — can be cured with doctor prescribed antibiotics.

STDs caused by viruses — such as genital herpes, HIV/AIDS, genital warts, HPV and cytomegalovirus — are not curable and can only be treated.

A number of additional treatment options for STDs are currently in development. These treatments include vaccines, anti-fungals, topical microbicides and other medications. Researchers are searching for new vaccines to protect against drug-resistant STDs such as gonorrhea.

In addition to prescribed medications, there are over-the-counter remedies that can treat your STD. Certain creams, ointments and other selected remedies may be of use, but you should consult your doctor before trying any of these products. You also may wish to use mild pain medication for certain symptoms.

CAUSES

STDs are caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites. They are usually, but not always, spread through oral, vaginal or anal sexual contact. Do not assume that you are not at risk for STDs just because you are not having traditional sexual intercourse.

Some STDs can spread from mother to baby during birth or through breastfeeding. Some STDs also can be passed along through sharing needles.

GETTING HELP

A diagnosis of an STD comes with social responsibility. This responsibility involves visiting your doctor to get proper treatment as well as taking other steps to get healthy so your body can work harder to fight the disease and prevent new complications.

If you have an STD, it is important that you tell all past, current and future sexual partners. Your sexual partners have a right to know if they have been exposed to a disease. If they don’t know of their infection, they could pass the disease on to others, and the cycle could continue.

Always practice safe sex, especially if you have an STD.

RELATED INFORMATION

What if I am past menopause or later in years? Do I still need to practice safe sex?

Absolutely. There is no age limit to who can get an STD. Age does not protect against STDs. Older individuals who are sexually active may be at risk for diseases like syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydial infection, genital herpes, hepatitis B, genital warts and trichomoniasis. To protect against STDs, always use a condom, even if your partner is your spouse. Some women may opt for lubricated condoms or a water-based lubricating jelly to reduce irritation. If you are sexually active, make sure you get STD screenings and proper testing during each physical exam with your doctor.

What progress have we made in the area of STD prevention?

Disease prevention is seen as a cornerstone of public health. Gardasil, a vaccine that fights HPV and is widely available, is quite an accomplishment in STD treatment. Ongoing clinical trials also promise new treatment and further cures on the horizon. More unconventional barrier methods have been successful as well.

Topical microbicides are substances applied to the vagina or rectum that kill and disable the microbes that can cause STDs. There is also ongoing research concerning female barrier methods.

LIVING WITH

two condoms in red packagingLiving with an STD can feel embarrassing, overwhelming and even painful. But it is important to remember that the first necessary step is to seek help and treatment. Many STDs can be easily treated with antibiotics, so the sooner you schedule an appointment, the sooner your treatment can begin.

Once you have been diagnosed, you must practice safe sex to prevent the spread of your STD, and condom use is not the only way to practice safe sex. In addition to using a condom, you also should know your STD status as well as your partner’s. Regular STD screenings and medical check-ups are crucial to prevent the spread of STDs.