Preventing Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Infections
Are you prepared to protect your health from sexually transmitted diseases and infections? Some of these infections are more familiar—you’ve probably heard of chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, and HIV. But many more are less talked about. You can protect yourself and your loved ones from future health problems by understanding these common STDs.
In this article we answer some of your tricky and sometimes uncomfortable questions about STD symptoms and diseases. You will learn why herpes is sometimes considered a sexually transmitted disease, what sexual disease is nicknamed “the clap,” and which kinds of infection can lie dormant for a long time. You will also find information on the best treatments for herpes, HIV, chlamydia and various other sexually-transmitted diseases.
STD or STI?
Some experts prefer the term “STI” (sexually transmitted infection). STIs include all infections that can be transmitted sexually.
Genital Warts (HPV)
It's not necessary to have sexual intercourse for a sexually-transmitted disease (STD) to harm your health. The human papillomavirus (HPV), the disease that causes genital warts, can be transmitted by close skin-to-skin contact. Some types of HPV cause cervical or anal cancer, and vaccines are available to protect against the most dangerous types. Other HPV types cause genital warts, which can be raised, flat, or cauliflower-shaped. HPV can be transmitted even by people who have no visible warts or other symptoms.
Genital warts can be big or small, flat or raised. They generally appear as a small bump or group of bumps in the genital region, and may be shaped like a cauliflower.
A vaccine to prevent HPV is given in three shots. The second shot is given a month or two after the first shot. The third shot comes six months after the first shot.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends boys and girls be vaccinated at ages 11 or 12.
If they did not get the HPV vaccine as children, women can get the HPV vaccine through age 26. Men can get it through age 21. The CDC recommends HPV vaccination for men through age 26 for men who have sex with men or men with compromised immune systems, including HIV.
Pubic Lice (Crabs STD)
Pubic lice are colloquially known as "crabs." This name refers to the shape of these sexually-transmitted parasites, which is different from that of body lice. Pubic lice live in pubic hair and are spread among people during close contact. Pubic lice can be treated with over-the-counter lice-killing medications.
Pubic Lice (Crabs) Symptoms
- Severe itching
- Visible crawling lice or eggs attached to pubic hair
Do you know what scabies infections look like? Like pubic lice, scabies are another parasitic STI. This parasite is not necessarily sexually transmitted, since it can affect any area of the skin. However, scabies may be spread during sexual contact.
- Extreme itching that is worse at night.
- The skin appears to have a pimple-like rash, as shown in the above photo.
- Both the itching and rash may be across the body or limited to the wrist, elbow, armpit, webbing between fingers, nipple, penis, waist, belt-line or buttocks.
- Tiny blisters (vesicles) and scales may appear.
- Tiny burrows left by the tunneling of female scabies mites may be visible on the skin. They appear as tiny raised and crooked grayish-white or skin-colored lines.
The only way to prevent this STI is to avoid touching people, as any skin-to-skin contact can spread this highly contagious mite. Condoms, while good at preventing many diseases, will not prevent scabies.
Fortunately, this STI is treatable. Prescription creams can cure a scabies infestation. Protect your health by visiting a doctor if you believe you may have this STI.
Gonorrhea (The Clap)
Gonorrhea is an easily transmitted disease that affects both men and women. The disease is also termed “the Clap” from the French word for brothel (clapier) and the early treatment of gonorrhea by clapping both hands against the penis or using a heavy object (like a mallet) on the penis to squeeze out pus in the penis (note, these old treatments are not recommended because they can damage the penis and they do not cure the disease). It can harm your health by causing infertility in men and women if it is left untreated. There may be no early symptoms of this common STD. This is what a gonorrhea infection looks like.
- Burning during urination
- Vaginal or urethral discharge
- Pelvic pain in women
- Men may experience swelling of the testes and discharge from the penis
In some cases, the symptoms are mild and the condition is mistaken for a UTI or yeast infection. Visit your health care provider if this sounds like your symptoms.
Have you seen a syphilis infection? Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics, but many people don't notice its early STD symptoms. It can play havoc with your health, leading to nerve damage, blindness, paralysis, and even death over time if not treated.
- A round, firm, painless sore on the genitals or anal area (often the first sign)
- A rash can develop later on the soles of the feet, palms, or other parts of the body
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Hair loss
- Late-stage syphilis can cause damage to many different organ systems. That's why early detection is so critical to your health.
Chlamydia is a very common STD. It can cause infertility if not treated. The symptoms may not be noticed, or they may be vague and nonspecific. Some people experience no health effects at all.
- Burning or itching of the genitals
- Painful urination
Chlamydia infections can also develop in the rectum and throat.
Oral Herpes (Herpes Simplex 1 Virus)
This is what oral herpes looks like. Cold sores or "fever blisters" on the lips are a sign of herpes virus infection, usually caused by the type of herpes virus known as human herpes virus 1, also known as oral herpes.
Oral herpes is usually not considered a sexually transmitted disease. It can be transmitted through kissing or household contact. However, it can also spread to the genitals. (While this type of herpes can be contracted on the genitals, it is different from the disease known as genital herpes). There is no cure for herpes infection, but medications can reduce the severity and duration of outbreaks.
- Itching of the lips or skin around the mouth
- Burning near the lips or mouth area
- Tingling near the lips or mouth area
- Sore throat
- Swollen glands
- Painful swallowing
- A rash may form on your gums, lips, mouth or throat
Symptoms of oral herpes usually appear 1-3 weeks after first infection. When symptoms return, they are typically milder than the initial herpes outbreak.
Genital Herpes (Herpes Simplex 2 Virus)
In contrast to oral herpes, genital herpes infections are caused by a different virus known as HSV-2 or HHV-2. The genital herpes virus spreads through direct genital contact and is considered an STD. More than 87% of those infected with genital herpes are unaware of their infection due to very mild or nonexistent symptoms.
Genital Herpes Symptoms
- Painful, fluid-filled blisters and crusted sores on the genital area, buttocks, thighs, or anus.
- Mild tingling or shooting pain in the legs, hips, or buttocks may occur hours to days before a genital herpes outbreak.
After the first infection, less severe outbreaks are common in the first year. Outbreaks tend to decrease over time, though the infection may stay in the body indefinitely.
A genital herpes infection can spread to the lips through oral contact. As with oral herpes, medications can reduce the severity of genital herpes, but there is no cure.
Hepatitis B is a virus that spreads through contact with body fluids and blood, so it can be transmitted through sexual intercourse. Hepatitis B infection is also possible through sharing of needles, razors, and toothbrushes. Babies can become infected at birth from an infected mother. It's possible to go for years without symptoms of this STI.
Hepatitis B Symptoms
- Abdominal pain
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes)
- Over time, scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) and liver cancer can develop.
Although there is no cure, there is a vaccine to help prevent hepatitis B infection.
The HIV virus (AIDS virus) weakens your body's immune system. It is spread through sexual contact, needle sharing, or from an infected mother to her baby. There may be no symptoms for years, but a blood test can tell if you have been infected. With appropriate treatment, many serious illnesses can be prevented.
- Flu-like symptoms 1 to 2 months after first infection, including like swollen lymph nodes, fever, and headaches
- Night sweats Muscle Aches
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Mouth ulcers
- Rapid weight loss
- Recurring fever or profuse night sweats
- Extreme and unexplained tiredness
- Prolonged swelling of the lymph glands in the armpits, groin, or neck
- Diarrhea that lasts for more than a week
- Sores of the mouth, anus, or genitals
- Red, brown, pink, or purplish blotches on or under the skin or inside the mouth, nose, or eyelids
- Memory loss, depression, and other neurologic disorders
Want to know about HIV testing? There are accurate tests to identify whether or not you have been infected with the HIV virus. These can be done in the clinic or at home with the FDA-approved Home Access test kit. The test can be performed anonymously, with only a number to identify you. However, sometimes people may not test positive in the initial 3-4 weeks to 6 months after infection. This time period is referred to as the "window period" in which antibodies may not have developed enough for a positive test. You can still transmit the virus to others during this time.
HIV/AIDS Treatment Options
While there is no cure for HIV, there are medications that can suppress the amount of virus multiplying inside the body. People take a combination of antiviral drugs in hopes of preventing the infection from advancing to AIDS. Additional treatments can help prevent or fight off serious infections, if the immune system has weakened. While there is no cure for HIV/AIDS, there are highly effective prophylactic (PrEP and PEP) medications that can dramatically reduce a person's risk. Ask your doctor for more information about PrEP and PEP medications.
Trichomoniasis is a parasitic infection (caused by Trichomonas vaginalis) that is spread during sexual contact. It affects both men and women and can be cured with medications. Most affected men have no specific symptoms.
- Men: minor discharge or burning with urination
- Women: yellowish-green vaginal discharge with a prominent odor, itching of the vaginal area, or painful sex or urination
Symptoms can develop anywhere from 5 to 28 days after contracting the infection.
Chancroid is an STD that is rarely seen in the U.S. It is more common in Africa and Asia. It causes painful lumps in the genital area that can progress to open sores. Antibiotics can cure the infection; chancroid is caused by bacterial infection with Haemophilus ducreyi.
- One or more sores or raised bumps on the genitals. A narrow, red border surrounds the sores. The sores become filled with pus and eventually rupture into a painful open sore.
- About half the time when untreated, the chancroid bacterial infection spreads to the groin's lymph glands, causing the groin to enlarge and become hard and painful.
Lymphogranuloma venereum (LGV)
Lymphogranuloma venereum (LGV) is a type of chlamydial infection, but it is caused by a different type of chlamydia (Chlamydia trachomatis) than the usual chlamydial disease. Like other chlamydial infections, it can be cured by antibiotic treatment.
Early Lymphogranuloma venereum Symptoms (3-12 Days After Exposure)
- Soft red, painless sores on or near the genitals or anus
- Similar sores in the throat or mouth following oral sex
Later Lymphogranuloma venereum Symptoms (2-6 Weeks After Exposure)
- Open sores in the genitals
- Swollen lymph nodes in the groin
- Anal sores and rectal discharge or bleeding if the infection was acquired through anal sex
- Painful urination
- Rectal bleeding
- Pain in lower back/abdomen
- Pus-filled or bloody diarrhea
- Fever, chills, joint pain, decreased appetite and fatigue
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is not a specific STD. Rather, it is a complication that can develop from various diseases, particularly gonorrhea and chlamydia. In PID, bacteria spread to the uterus and female reproductive tract. Infertility may result if the condition is not treated right away.
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease Symptoms
- Pelvic or low abdominal pain
- Painful urination
- Painful intercourse
- Light bleeding
Who's at Risk of Sexually Transmitted Diseases?
It's estimated that half of sexually active young adults acquire at least one of these STIs by age 25. In fact, sexual diseases are the most commonly reported type of infection in America. Though more common in teens and young adults, anyone who is sexually active is potentially at risk. The risk is raised by having multiple sex partners. The incidence of some sexually transmitted diseases, including LGV and syphilis, is increasing in men who have sex with men.
Can Virgins Get Sexually Transmitted Diseases?
Many of these diseases can spread through any type of sexual activity. This can include skin-to-skin contact and oral sex. This means that people who have not yet had sexual intercourse can still get infected.
Abstinence from any sexual contact (or skin-to-skin contact) is the only absolute way to prevent STIs. Being in a long-term, monogamous relationship also is a good way to avoid them.
There are also steps you can take to decrease the chance of getting an STD if you are sexually active, including:
- Asking partners if they have ever been infected.
- Using condoms.
- Avoiding sexual activity with a partner who shows STD symptoms.
- Asking partners to be tested before having sex.
- Being aware of symptoms and signs of these conditions.
The Limits of Condoms
Condoms can prevent the spread of some STDs, but they aren't 100% effective. They are less effective at protecting against herpes, syphilis, and genital warts, since these STDs can be transmitted by contact with skin lesions that are not covered by a condom. Condoms also do not protect against crabs and scabies infestations.
How to Tell Your Partner You Are Infected
It may be difficult, but it is important to tell your partner as soon as possible if you believe you may be infected. Even if you are being treated, you may still be able to spread the infection. For some diseases, both partners should be treated at the same time.
It can be difficult to share this information, so some people find that preparing a script in advance can be helpful. Here are some facts that can help the conversation go more smoothly:
- Discovering a sexually transmitted disease is not necessarily evidence of cheating. It may very well have come from either your past relationship or that of your partner.
- An estimated one in two sexually active people will contract such a condition by the time they reach age 25. Most of these don't know they have an infection. Many STD symptoms are subtle or don’t even show up when first contracted and may be discovered much later.
It's normal to be nervous about this topic. But by being bold and taking action, you can actively promote better health for you and your partner.
STDs and Pregnancy
Some STDs can cause premature labor in pregnant women, and many STDs can be passed to the baby either during pregnancy or childbirth. So, all pregnant women should be checked for STDs. STDs can cause numerous problems in babies, like low birth weight, stillbirth, nerve problems, blindness, serious infections, and liver problems. Treatment during pregnancy can reduce the risks of these complications and can cure many types of infections.
Can STDs Come Back?
In most cases, new exposures to STDs that you have already acquired in the past can cause you to get the infection again. Most treatments don't protect you from developing the STD at a future time. If your partner has not been treated, you may pass the infection back and forth. Without the right precautions, you could acquire a second STD or a recurrence of the same infection. In addition, genital herpes virus infections can be recurrent after a single exposure.