The term sexually transmitted disease
(STD) is used to refer to any illness that is passed from one person to another
through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. An STD may also be referred to as a
sexually transmitted infection (STI) or venereal disease (VD). This does not
mean that sex is the only way that STDs can be transmitted. Depending on the STD,
infection may also be transmitted through:
bedding or towels
A large number of infections can
be transmitted sexually. Some STDs carry obvious symptoms. Common STD symptoms
- pain during
sex or urination
bumps, or blisters
However, many people with STDs
have no symptoms. Some STDs often lie dormant for years. According to the Mayo
Clinic, asymptomatic STDs are so common that many people with STDs have no
idea they are infected. They may pass on an STD to one or more partners without
knowing it. They may also suffer internal damage while the STD remains
According to the Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC), STDs such as syphilis and HIV can have severe
consequences if left untreated. Even common diseases such as gonorrhea and
chlamydia can cause problems if undiagnosed for long periods of time. Potential
long-term consequences of untreated STDs include:
types of cancer
- death (rare)
The most common STDs are
Herpes is the short name for the
herpes simplex virus, or HSV. There are two types of herpes, both of which are
usually transmitted sexually. HSV-2 primarily causes genital herpes. In the
past, HSV-1 primarily caused oral herpes. However, due to transmission during
oral sex, HSV-1 now also causes a large number of genital herpes cases.
The most common symptom of both
herpes viruses is blistery sores. They generally crust over and heal within a
few weeks. Generally the first herpes outbreak is the most painful. Outbreaks
usually become less painful and frequent over time.
There is no cure for herpes.
Medications are available that can help to control outbreaks and may decrease
pain during an outbreak. The same medications can also make you less likely to
transmit herpes to your sexual partner. However, HSV can be transmitted even
when you have no symptoms.
Herpes can be very dangerous to
newborns. It’s very important that prospective mothers and pregnant women are
aware of their HSV status.
Gonorrhea is a common bacterial STD.
It’s also known as “the clap.”
Most people with gonorrhea have
no symptoms. Symptoms, if present, may include itching around the genitals and
a yellowish-green discharge.
According to the CDC, untreated,
gonorrhea can cause:
health problems in newborns
Gonorrhea is treated with
According to the CDC, chlamydia is the
most commonly reported bacterial STD in the United States.
Most people with chlamydia have
no symptoms. When symptoms are present, they are similar to those of gonorrhea.
Left untreated, chlamydia can cause:
inflammatory disease (PID)
health problems, including blindness (rare)
Chlamydia can be treated with
Syphilis is another bacterial
infection. It often goes unnoticed in the early stages. The main early symptom
is a painless, round sore (chancre).
This is different than a canker sore.
Later symptoms of syphilis
- muscle pain
If left untreated, late-stage
syphilis can lead to:
- brain damage
Fortunately, if caught early
enough, syphilis is easily treated by antibiotics. Syphilis infection in a
newborn can be fatal. All pregnant women should be screened for syphilis.
HPV can cause a range of health
- oral cancer
There is no cure for HPV.
However, there is a vaccine available that can protect against some of the most
dangerous, cancer causing strains of HPV.
Most HPV infections will not
become cancerous. In fact, the majority of people will clear an HPV infection
within two years. However, HPV infection
is nevertheless a serious concern. According to the American
Cancer Society, two-thirds of cases of cervical cancer in the United States
are caused by HPV-16 and HPV-18. These are the two strains of the virus that
most commonly cause cancer.
According to the Mayo
Clinic, a person can carry HIV and not show any symptoms for 10 years or
longer. However, left untreated, HIV can compromise your immune system and
cause acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
There is no cure for HIV.
However, current treatment options are effective. When treated early, people
infected with HIV can live as long as people without HIV.
Effective, early treatment
requires testing. The CDC
recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 be tested at least once
for HIV. People at high risk for HIV should be tested once a year.
HIV testing is widely available.
Free and confidential testing can be found in all major cities and many public
health clinics. A government web tool for finding a local test site is
available at http://hivtest.cdc.gov/.
Other, less common, STDs include:
- pubic lice
Most STDs cannot be diagnosed
simply by the presence of symptoms. Tests are needed to determine if you have
an STD and what STD you might have.
These days, most STDs can be
diagnosed using a urine or blood test. In addition, swabs may be taken of sores
to check for viruses. Urethral and vaginal swabs can also be used to diagnose STDs.
You can get tested for STD at
your regular doctor’s office or at a clinic. Although home testing kits are
available, they may not always be reliable. Use them with caution, and check to
see if the FDA has approved them.
Internet STD testing is also an
option. Like home kits, the quality of such testing varies.
It’s important to know that a Pap
smear is not an STD test. A Pap smear checks for the presence of precancerous
cells on the cervix. It may also be combined with an HPV test for some women.
However, a negative Pap smear does not mean you don’t have other STDs. You must
be tested for each STD separately.
Treatment for STDs varies
depending on what STD you have. It’s very important that both you and your
sexual partner be successfully treated for STDs before resuming your sexual
relationship. Otherwise you can pass an infection back and forth between
Bacterial infections can usually
be treated fairly easily with antibiotics. It’s important to take all your
antibiotics as prescribed. You should continue taking them even if you feel
better before they are finished. You should also return to your doctor if your
symptoms do not go away with treatment or if they return.
Viral infections usually have no
cure. However, treatment is available for many of these viral infections.
Treatment can be very effective at stopping the progression of HIV. Medications
are also available to reduce the frequency and severity of herpes outbreaks.
Furthermore, antiviral drugs may reduce the risk of transmitting an STD to your
Some STDs are caused by neither
viruses nor bacteria. Instead they’re caused by other small organisms. Examples
of such STDs include:
- pubic lice
These STDs are usually easily
treatable with appropriate oral or topical medications.
Abstinence is the only foolproof
way to avoid contracting an STD. However, there are ways to make sexual contact
safer. When used properly, condoms provide the best protection against STDs,
and have the additional benefit of providing contraception.
Using latex condoms or other
barriers for anal and oral sex can also reduce your STD risk. Numerous STDs can
be spread during oral sex, including:
Condoms and other barriers are
generally very effective at preventing STDs that spread through infected
fluids. However, they can’t fully protect against STDs that spread from skin to
skin. If the barrier does not cover infected skin, the STD can still be passed
to your partner.
Hormonally based birth control
options, such as the pill and the ring, do not protect you from STDs.
Intrauterine devices (IUDs) also do not prevent STDs.
Before having sex with a new
partner, it’s important to discuss your sexual history. In addition, you should
both be screened for STDs before having sex. As STDs often have no symptoms, testing
is the only way to know if you are infected.
When discussing STD test results,
it’s important to ask a partner what STDs they have been tested for. Many
people assume their doctors have screened them for STDs as part of regular
care. However, that usually isn’t true. People need to ask for the specific STD
tests that they want. Urine or blood tests are available for:
Regular STD screening is a good
idea for anyone who is sexually active. It’s particularly important for those
with multiple partners or new partners.
Eligible people should also
consider getting vaccinated for HPV and hepatitis.