STDs

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Introduction

What are STDs?

STDs is the acronym for sexually transmitted diseases. STDs are passed from one person to another during sexual contact. The term STD is also known as STI (sexually transmitted infection). Some STDs can also be passed to another person through other means, such as through blood transfusions or from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy or childbirth.

STDs are very common, especially among young people ages 15 to 24. There are about 19 million new cases of STDs in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Source: CDC).

STDs include:

Most STDs are highly preventable. If diagnosed early, some STDs, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, can be quickly and easily treated and cured before serious complications develop.
Other STDs, such as HIV/AIDS and genital herpes, are not curable, but prompt diagnosis and treatment can help reduce or delay the onset of serious complications, improve the quality of life, and minimize the spread of the disease to others.

Any person who engages in sexual activity can contract and pass on an STD. This includes heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual men and women.

Untreated STDs can lead to serious complications, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, opportunistic infections, and complications in newborns. Using safer sex practices, seeking regular medical care, and seeking early, regular prenatal care can help reduce the risk of serious complications of STDs.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of STDs?

Symptoms of STDs vary depending on the type of STD and the individual case. Some STDs have no symptoms early in the disease – some never generate symptoms. However, serious permanent damage to the reproductive tissues, infertility, and other complications can occur even when no symptoms are present.

Symptoms that affect the genitals and reproductive organs include:

  • Blisters and lesions on the genitals

  • Burning with urination

  • Infertility

  • Pain with sexual intercourse

  • Pelvic pain

  • Pubic itching

  • Pubic rashes

  • Scarring and disfigurement

  • Testicular pain

  • Thick discharge from the penis

  • Unusual vaginal discharge or vaginal discharge with a foul odor

Some STDs, such as HIV/AIDS and syphilis, can cause symptoms in other body systems outside the reproductive system and genitals. These symptoms include:

Causes

What causes STDs?

STDs are caused by infections of certain organisms:

  • Bacteria cause chancroid, chlamydia, bacterial vaginosis, and syphilis.

  • Viruses cause hepatitis, herpes, HIV/AIDS, HPV, and genital warts.

  • Parasites cause pubic lice (crabs), scabies, and trichomoniasis.

  • Yeast causes vaginal yeast infections, yeast infections of the top of the penis, and yeast infections of the mouth.

Infections that cause STDs are passed from one person to another during sexual contact. This includes vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Any person who engages in sexual activity can contract and pass on an STD, including heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual men and women.
In addition, some STDs can be passed to another person through other means, such as through blood transfusions, through contaminated needles, or from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy or childbirth.

What are the risk factors for STDs?

A number of factors increase the risk of catching STDs. Risk factors for STDs include:

  • Being a man who has sex with a man

  • Being born to and/or breastfed by a mother with an STD

  • Having had a transfusion of blood products before 1985 

  • Having certain infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis

  • Having HIV/AIDS or any type of STD

  • Having multiple sexual partners (the more sexual partners a person has, the greater the risk of catching STDs)

  • Having sex for money or drugs

  • Having unprotected sex, including vaginal, oral, or anal sex, with a partner who has had one or more other sexual partners

  • Sharing contaminated needles to inject drugs or for tattooing

Reducing your risk of STDs

Catching and passing on an STD is preventable. It is important to understand that it is possible to transmit an STD even when there are no symptoms. Not all people who are at risk for STDs will develop an STD. You can lower your risk by:

  • Abstaining from sexual activity

  • Engaging in sexual activities only within a mutually monogamous relationship in which neither partner is infected with STDs or has risk factors for the infection

  • Getting regular, routine medical care

  • Seeking medical care as soon as possible after possible exposure to STDs or after high-risk sexual activity

  • Seeking prenatal care early and regularly during a pregnancy

  • Using a new condom for each sex act

  • Using a sterile, unused needle for each act of tattooing or injectable drug use

  • Avoiding tattoo parlors that use pooled inks

How are STDs diagnosed?

Seek medical care as soon as possible after possible exposure to STDS or after engaging in high-risk sexual activity. Tests used to diagnose STDs include simple blood tests or testing a sample for cells and depend on the type of STD.

  • Chlamydia is diagnosed by testing a small sample of cells or discharge taken from a woman’s cervix or a man’s urethra.

  • Genital herpes is diagnosed by testing a small sample of cells or drainage taken from the suspected herpes blister or lesion. A blood test may also be performed to test for the specific antibodies that are produced by the immune system in response to a genital herpes infection.

  • Gonorrhea is diagnosed by testing a small sample of cells or discharge taken from a woman’s cervix or a man’s urethra.

  • HIV is diagnosed with a blood or oral swab test that can reveal the presence of the specific antibodies (infection-fighting substances) that the body makes in response to the HIV infection. With these techniques HIV may not be detectable in the first one to three months after infection, and a series of tests may be needed to diagnose or rule out HIV infection. A diagnosis of AIDS is generally made when an HIV infection has resulted in serious complications and opportunistic infections are occurring.

  • Syphilis is diagnosed by a simple blood test.

  • Vaginitis is diagnosed by taking small samples of cells from the vagina and cervix for culture and sensitivity testing. Various tests on the samples are performed to determine if a bacteria, fungus or parasite is causing the infection and to determine the most effective medication to treat it. If an allergy is suspected to be causing the vaginitis, diagnostic testing may include allergy testing, called skin patch testing.

Treatments

How are STDs treated?

Some STDs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, are easily curable in their early stages. Prompt diagnosis and treatment can eliminate the risk of developing serious complications.

Certain STDs, such as genital herpes, HIV/AIDS and HPV, are not curable, but promptdiagnosis and treatment can help to reduce or delay the onset of serious complications, improve the quality of life, and minimize the spread of the disease to others.

Treatment plans vary depending on the type and stage of the STD and other factors:

  • STDs caused by a bacterial infection, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea or syphilis, or by the parasite trichomoniasis are treated with oral antibiotic medication.

  • Pubic lice are treated with an appropriate topical medication that contains a pesticide.

  • STDs caused by certain viruses, such as HIV/AIDS and genital herpes, are not curable, but they can be controlled to various degrees with antiviral or antiretroviral medications.

  • Genital warts may be treated by topical medication or by cryotherapy, which destroys them by freezing.

  • For all types of STDs, it is important to abstain from sexual activity until the infection is cured and/or a health care provider has cleared you to have sexual relations, and your sexual partner(s) have been fully treated, regardless if symptoms existed.

It is important to discuss any infection with your sexual partner(s), no matter how difficult it is to do so.

What are the possible complications of STDs?

Complications of untreated STDs can be serious and life threatening. You can minimize the risk of serious complications for yourself, your unborn child, and your sexual partner(s) by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you.

If left untreated, STDs can lead to serious complications including:

  • An increased risk for contracting HIV, which causes AIDS

  • An increased risk for contracting other STDs

  • Blindness

  • Cervical cancer

  • Dementia

  • Frequent serious, opportunistic infections

  • Infertility

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease

  • Pelvic abscess

  • Prematurity, birth defects, and stillbirth

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jan 2
  1. Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/default.htm

  2. CDC Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats17/default.htm]
  3. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.
  4. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.


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