In the United States, 19 million new sexually transmitted disease infections occur each year. Since half of these are among people ages 15–24, prevention is more important than ever. STDs affect men and women from all socioeconomic levels and add about $16 billion to U.S. health care costs each year. Although STDs are widespread, most people remain unaware of the risk and consequences.
You can catch an STD if you have sex with someone who has an STD (any sex that involves the penis, vagina, anus or mouth). Some STDs spread through body fluids such as semen, vaginal fluid or blood; others through contact with affected skin. Bacteria, parasites and viruses cause STDs. There are more than 20 types of STDs including Chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, HIV/AIDS, HPV, syphilis and trichomoniasis.
Any person who has sex — straight or gay, male or female, young or old — can contract an STD. However, the more partners you have, the greater the risk. If your partner has other partners, you are both at increased risk. If you and your partner have had sex with other people in the past, either of you could be carrying an STD. If you have an STD, you are vulnerable to new infections. Being infected with one STD makes it easier for another STD to be transmitted.
Abusing alcohol or recreational drugs can inhibit your judgment, making you more prone to risky behaviors. Injecting drugs and sharing needles can spread serious infections including HIV and hepatitis B and C. If you acquired HIV by drug use, you can still transmit it sexually. In adolescent girls, the immature cervix, consisting of constantly changing cells, is more vulnerable to sexually transmitted organisms.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, STDs are more common among young people, men who have sex with men and minority communities. Within social groups of similar ages, location and background, couples form, split up and find new partners. If one STD spreads through a group, there is a good chance others will, too.
Be aware of any changes in your or your partner’s body. Symptoms may appear in or near the vagina, penis, rectum or throat. Symptoms include unusual discharge; lumps, bumps or rashes; sores that may be painful, itchy or painless; itchy skin; burning on urination; or pain in the pelvis, abdomen or rectum. STDs do not always show symptoms.
The only way to confirm an STD is an examination by a health care provider. If you have an STD, your partner also needs treatment to prevent passing the STD back to you or to others. Left untreated, certain STDs can lead to cancer or even death. Prevent complications by using safe sex methods, getting regular check-ups and seeking early treatment.
Your health care provider will assess your condition, ask questions regarding symptoms and take a sexual history. Blood tests and urine samples may be ordered. If you have active genital sores, samples from the sores may be tested.
STDs affect both men and women, but the ensuing health problems are often more severe for women. If a pregnant woman has an STD, it can cause serious health problems for the baby. An STD caused by bacteria or parasites may require antibiotics or other medications. Antibiotics can treat gonorrhea, syphilis, Chlamydia and trichomoniasis. You may be treated for gonorrhea and Chlamydia at the same time because the two usually appear together.
There is no cure for STDs caused by a virus, but daily suppressive antiviral medications can reduce recurrence. Antiviral medications can keep HIV infection under control for many years, although the virus is still present and can be easily transmitted. The sooner you start treatment, the more effective it is.
Getting vaccinated before sexual exposure is effective in preventing certain STDs. Vaccines can prevent viral STDs that can cause cancer: human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis A and B. The CDC recommends the HPV vaccine for girls and boys ages 11–12. Vaccination is recommended for teen boys and girls, women through age 26 and men through age 21 who were not vaccinated when they were younger. The hepatitis B vaccine is usually given to newborns.
Talking to your partner(s) about STDs is essential in protecting yourself and others. If tests show you have an STD, inform your sex partners (current and from the past year) so they can get tested and treated. Place blame on hold. Do not jump to the conclusion that your partner has been unfaithful. One or both of you may have been infected from a past partner. Be honest with your health care providers. Their job is to treat you and prevent STDs from spreading. Local health departments maintain STD programs that provide confidential testing, treatment and partner services.
Reduce your risk:
- Abstain from sex
- Stay with one uninfected, monogamous partner
- Follow safe sex practices
- Avoid any intercourse with new partners until you are both tested
- Use condoms and dental dams correctly and consistently
- Do not drink alcohol excessively or use drugs
- Avoid anonymous, casual sex
- Teach your children; becoming sexually active at a young age increases the number of partners and STD risk
- Male circumcision can reduce a man’s risk of acquiring HIV from an infected woman by 50–60 percent and prevent the transmission of HPV and genital herpes
The content of this article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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