If you have sex — any kind of it — you can get an STD, also called a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Straight or gay, married or single, you’re vulnerable to STIs and STI symptoms. Thinking or hoping your partner doesn’t have an STI is no protection — you need to know for sure. And although condoms are highly effective for reducing transmission of some STDs, no method is foolproof.
Aside from colds and the flu, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are some of the most widespread infections both in the world. STIs affect both men and women, and almost half of all STIs occur in people younger than 25 years old. Exposure to an STI can occur any time you have sexual contact with anyone that involves the genitals, the mouth (oral), or the rectum (anal). Exposure is more likely if you have more than one sex partner or do not use condoms. Some STIs can be passed by nonsexual contacts, such as by sharing needles or during the delivery of a baby or during breastfeeding. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are also called sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Common sexually transmitted infections
There are at least 20 different STIs. They can be caused by viruses, bacteria, and protozoa. Some of the most common STIs in the U.S. are:
- Genital herpes.
- Genital warts or human papillomavirus (HPV). Certain high-risk types of HPV can cause cervical cancer in women.
- Hepatitis B.
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS. Having other STIs, such as genital herpes, can increase your risk of HIV.
- Other infections that may be sexually transmitted. These include hepatitis A, cytomegalovirus, molluscum contagiosum, Mycoplasma genitalium, hepatitis C, and possibly bacterial vaginosis.
- Scabies and pubic lice, which can be spread by sexual contact.
STI symptoms aren’t always obvious. If you think you have STI symptoms or have been exposed to an STI, see a doctor. Some STIs are easy to treat and cure; others require more-complicated treatment to manage them.
It’s essential to be evaluated, and — if diagnosed with an STI — get treated. It’s also essential to inform your partner or partners so that they can be evaluated and treated.
If untreated, STIs can increase your risk of acquiring another STI such as HIV. This happens because an STI can stimulate an immune response in the genital area or cause sores, either of which might raise the risk of HIV transmission. Some untreated STIs can also lead to infertility.
Knowledge is power when it comes to your sexual health. You’ll need to get tested to protect yourself — and your partner. Fortunately, all of these common STDs can be treated, and most can be cured.
STIs often asymptomatic
Recognizing the symptoms is a start, but you won’t always notice chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and other STDs.
STIs often have no signs or symptoms (asymptomatic). Even with no symptoms, however, you can pass the infection to your sex partners. So it’s important to use protection, such as a condom, during sex. And visit your doctor regularly for STI screening, so you can identify and treat an infection before you can pass it on.
Some of the following diseases, such as hepatitis, can be transmitted without sexual contact, by coming into contact with an infected person’s blood. Others, such as gonorrhea, can only be transmitted through sexual contact.
Sometimes people with STDs are too embarrassed or frightened to ask for help or information. However, most STDs are easy to treat. The sooner a person seeks treatment and warns sexual partners about the disease, the less likely the disease will do permanent damage, be spread to others, or be passed to a baby.
The potential health complications of STD infections for women are many, and may include:
- Infertility. At their most severe, untreated STDs can lead to infertility in women. STDs are equal opportunity sterilizers, as men can also become sterile as a result of chlamydia or gonorrhea infections.
- Ectopic pregnancy. This occurs when scarring of a woman’s reproductive organs, which can occur as a result of an STD like chlamydia or gonorrhea, causes a fertilized egg to implant and grow outside the uterus.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).Two out of five women whose chlamydia infection is not treated develop PID, which can lead to pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy, and infertility. Untreated gonorrhea can also cause PID.
- Infection of newborns. Pregnant women with untreated syphilis, herpes virus, hepatitis B, or HIV may pass these infections on to their babies. This can cause premature birth, stillbirth, death soon after birth, birth defects, and in the case of HIV, lifetime infection.
- Heart disease and brain function. Untreated syphilis can lead to cardiovascular and neurological problems.
- Cervical cancer. Most cervical cancers are caused by certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that also causes genital warts.
- Increased risk of HIV transmission. Studies suggest that having chlamydia or gonorrhea makes it easier for a woman to become infected with HIV if she’s exposed.
- Death. Untreated syphilis and HIV eventually lead to death.
If diagnosed with an STD, follow these guidelines:
- Seek treatment to stop the spread of the disease.
- Notify sexual contacts and urge them to have a checkup.
- Take all of the prescribed medication, even if symptoms stop before all of the prescribed medication(s) are taken.
- Sometimes, follow-up tests are important to comply with the instructions given by the health care practitioner.
- Consult a doctor with specific needs and any questions about reinfection, sexual partner notification, and prevention.
- Avoid sexual activity while being treated for an STD