Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are usually contracted through sexual contact. The organisms that cause sexually transmitted diseases can pass from person to person through blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or other body fluids.
Sometimes these infections are transmitted through non-sexual routes, such as from mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth, through blood transfusions, or through shared needles.
Sexually transmitted diseases can be contracted from people who seem very healthy and may not even know they have the infection. STDs do not always have symptoms; for this reason, experts prefer the term “sexually transmitted infections” rather than “sexually transmitted diseases.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may have a variety of signs and symptoms or no symptoms at all. For that reason, they may go unnoticed until a complication occurs or the partner is diagnosed with the infection. Signs and symptoms that may indicate the presence of an STI include:
- Sores or bumps on the genitals or in the oral or rectal area
- Pain or burning when urinating
- Discharge from the penis
- Vaginal discharge with an unusual odor or odor
- Unusual vaginal bleeding
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Swollen, sore lymph nodes, particularly in the groin, but sometimes more widespread
- Pain in the lower abdomen
- Skin rash on the trunk, hands, or feet
Signs and symptoms may appear within a few days after exposure, or it may take years for problems to occur, depending on the organism.
When to see your doctor
Call your health care provider immediately if any of the following occurs:
- If you are sexually active and may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection
- If you have signs and symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection
Ask for a consultation with a doctor:
When you think you are already sexually active or at age 21; whichever comes first
Before you start having sexual intercourse with a new partner
Sexually transmitted infections can be caused by:
- Bacteria (gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia)
- Parasites (trichomoniasis)
- Virus (human papilloma, genital herpes, HIV)
Sexual activity plays a role in the spread of many other infectious agents, although it is possible to become infected without sexual contact. Examples include hepatitis A, B and C viruses, and Shigella and giardia intestinal bacteria.
Anyone who is sexually active is at risk of being exposed, to some degree, to a sexually transmitted infection. Factors that may increase that risk includes:
Having unprotected sex. Vaginal or anal penetration by an infected partner who does not use a latex condom significantly increases the risk of acquiring an STI. Incorrect or irregular use of condoms can also increase your risk.
Oral sex may be less risky, but infections can still be transmitted without the use of a latex condom or mouth guard. Mouth guards (thin, square, rubber, latex, or silicone parts) prevent skin-to-skin contact.
Having sex with multiple partners. The risk is greater when you have sex with more people. Whether they are simultaneous partners or consecutive monogamous relationships.
Having a history of STIs. If you’ve already had one STI, it’s much easier for you to have another.
Anyone forced to have sex or sexual activity. Coping with rape or assault can be very difficult, but it’s important to get an appointment as soon as possible. Screening, treatment, and emotional support are offered.
Alcohol abuse or recreational drug use. Substance abuse can inhibit your common sense and predispose you to risky behaviors.
Injecting drugs. Sharing needles spreads many serious infections, including HIV, Hepatitis B, and Hepatitis C.
Being young. Half of STIs occur in people aged 15-24.
Men who request prescriptions for drugs that treat erectile dysfunction. Men who ask their doctors for prescriptions for certain drugs, such as sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), and vardenafil (Levitra), have an increased risk of getting an STI. If you ask your doctor for any of these medicines, make sure you are informed and have safe sex.
Because many people do not have symptoms in the early stages of a sexually transmitted infection, it is important to be screened for sexually transmitted infections to avoid complications.
Possible complications include
- Pelvic pain
- Complications of pregnancy
- Eye inflammation
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Heart disease
- Certain types of cancer, such as rectal and cervical cancer associated with human papillomavirus (HPV)
There are several ways to avoid or reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections.
Abstain. The most effective way to avoid sexually transmitted infections is to abstain from sex.
Stay with an uninfected partner. Another reliable way to avoid sexually transmitted infections is to have a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner.
Wait and see. Avoid vaginal and anal sex with new partners until both have been tested for sexually transmitted infections. Oral sex is less risky, but use a latex condom or mouth guard – a thin, square piece of latex or silicone – to avoid direct contact between oral and genital mucous membranes. Keep in mind that there is no good genital herpes test for any type of sex, and the human papillomavirus (HPV) test is not available for men.
Get vaccinated. Getting vaccinated ahead of time, before sexual exposure, is also effective in preventing certain types of sexually transmitted infections. Vaccines are available to prevent human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis A, and hepatitis B.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the HPV vaccine for girls and boys ages 11 and 12. If not fully vaccinated by age 11 and 12, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that girls and women up to age 26 and boys and men up to age 26 receive the vaccine.
In general, hepatitis B vaccine is given to newborns, and hepatitis A vaccine is recommended for 1-year-olds. Both vaccines are recommended for people who are not immunized against these diseases and for those at increased risk of infection, such as men who have sex with men and those who use intravenous drugs.
Always and correctly use condoms and mouthguards. Use a new latex condom or mouth guard every time you have sex, whether it’s oral, vaginal, or anal. Never use an oil-based lubricant, such as petroleum jelly, with a latex condom or mouth guard.
Condoms made with natural membranes are not recommended because they are not as effective in preventing sexually transmitted infections. Keep in mind that while condoms reduce the risk of exposure to most sexually transmitted infections, they provide a lower degree of protection for sexually transmitted infections related to exposed genital ulcers, such as human papillomavirus (HPV) or herpes. In addition, non-barrier contraceptive methods, such as oral contraceptives or intrauterine devices, do not protect against sexually transmitted infections.
Don’t drink too much alcohol or use drugs. If you are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, you are more likely to take sexual risks.
Communicate. After important sexual contact, talk with your partner about safer sex. Clearly, agree on what activities you will and won’t allow.
Consider male circumcision. There is evidence that male circumcision can help men reduce a woman’s risk of HIV infection (heterosexual transmission) by up to 60 percent. In addition, male circumcision can prevent the transmission of genital HPV and genital herpes.
Consider the drug Truvada. In July 2012, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the combination drug emtricitabine-tenofovir (Truvada) to reduce the risk of sexual transmission of HIV infection in people at high risk. Truvada is also used as an HIV treatment along with other medications.