Sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, are a group of diseases that are passed through sexual contact or contact with bodily fluids. STDs include many different bacteria, viruses, and parasites, and the infections they cause range from mild to life-threatening. Most STDs are curable, yet some them — including HIV, hepatitis B, human papillomavirus (HPV), and herpes — are not.
Sexually transmitted diseases can cause serious long-term effects. They raise the risk of infertility, miscarriage, and cancer, and in the case of HIV, lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
If you are sexually active, you should be aware of these diseases. Listed below are the most common STDs and how to protect yourself from them.
Chlamydia is among the common curable STDs. It can spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Only up to half of all chlamydia cases are symptomatic, so without testing, there may be no way of knowing that you have contracted this STD.
In symptomatic cases, the most common signs of chlamydia include:
- Pain or burning when urinating
- Pain during sex
- Discharge from the penis or vagina
- Pain, discharge, or bleeding around the anus
- In men: Discomfort around the testicles
- In women: pain in the lower abdomen, vaginal bleeding between periods
Chlamydia is easy to test for and treat (with antibiotics). After treatment, it’s a good idea to test again to make sure it’s really gone.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
Most people get the human papillomavirus at some point in their lives. There are over 100 types of HPV and while some of them can only be spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex, others can be spread through touch. Some types of HPV cause genital warts. A few types of HPV can raise the risk of cervical cancer.
The HPV infection causes warts to grow on different parts of the body. Symptoms may include:
- Genital warts. In women, they appear on the vulva, near the anus, in the vagina, and on the cervix. In men, they appear on the penis and scrotum, and around the anus.
- Lesions or warts in or around the mouth. Engaging in oral sex with a person who has HPV can cause the transfer of the virus to the mouth. Oral HPV raises the risk of oral and throat cancer.
- Common warts. They usually appear on the hands, fingers, and elbows.
- Plantar warts. These warts grow on the bottom of the foot.
- Flat warts. Raised lesions that can appear anywhere on the body.
As the name states, HPV is a virus, and so it is incurable with antibiotics or any other medication. Most types of HPV will disappear on their own, but the more dangerous kinds — the ones that are linked with cervical cancer — can be prevented with the HPV vaccine.
Gonorrhea is another STD that you can treat with antibiotics. Carriers of this disease are often asymptomatic, but when symptoms do appear, they usually occur one day to two weeks after infection.
- Discharge from the penis or vagina
- The urge to urinate often
- In men: Burning or tingling inside the penis, swollen testes
- In women: pain the pelvis or stomach
Bacteria can cause Syphilis, which is a common STD. The infection has four stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. The primary stage includes a sore or sores at the site of infection. Secondary syphilis includes a rash, swollen lymph nodes, and fever. The latent stage is not marked by any symptoms, and the tertiary stage usually includes nerve and organ damage.
Antibiotics can be used to treat syphilis, and the earlier it is detected, the better the outcome.
Herpes is a viral infection that comes in two forms: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is commonly associated with cold sores, and HSV-2 with genital sores and blisters, but it is possible to transmit oral herpes to the genitals and vice versa.
Herpes is very contagious and passes easily from one person to another. It is most contagious when a person has blisters, although blisters are not necessary in order for it to be transferred.
Since herpes is a virus, the way to manage symptoms is with antiviral drugs, but a person cannot be cured of the virus.
HIV is a virus you definitely want to avoid at all costs — it’s the virus that causes AIDS. People can transmit it through bodily fluids including blood, vaginal fluids, semen, and breast milk. You can contract HIV by having sex with or sharing a needle with a person that has it, but not from kissing them.
You can go years being HIV positive without knowing. That’s why it’s important to get tested if you are unsure about the status of your current or previous partners.
The way to treat HIV is with a combination of drugs and antiretroviral therapy. When a person discovers that they are HIV positive, the goal is to reduce the likelihood that the infection will progress to AIDS.
How to Protect Yourself From STDs
You can protect yourself and your partner/s from STDs using the following methods:
- Picking your sexual partners wisely. The fewer sexual partners you have, the lower the risk of contracting an STD. Make sure your new partners are healthy. If they are positive, refrain from having sex until they get treatment.
- Using barrier methods. Using condoms and dental dams can significantly lower your risk of getting an STD. Make sure that you and your partner are on the same page, and that they are willing to use barrier methods as well.
- Stay sober. Drinking alcohol and doing drugs can lead to making bad decisions including having unprotected sex.
- Testing. Screening for STDs after every new sexual partner is important. In a case where you may have contracted an STD, the earlier you catch it, the easier it is to treat.
- Vaccinations. Vaccinations prevent two serious STDs: HPV and Hepatitis B. The HPV vaccine protects against four types of HPV that are linked with ovarian cancer. It is recommended for boys and girls at age 10 or 11. Most newborn babies get the hepatitis B vaccine.
- Avoiding drugs. Certain STDs like HIV and hepatitis can be spread through needle sharing. Avoid doing drugs at all, especially injectable drugs.
Always practice safe sex, especially with new partners or if you have more than one partner. If you have never been tested for STDs, it’s time to talk to your doctor about screening.
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