By Jenilee Matz, MPH
Sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, are more common than you might think. Each year an estimated 19 million Americans contract an STD. Yet despite being so common, there remains a lot of confusion surrounding who is at risk, how STDs are contracted and how they affect your health. Here are 16 must-know facts to protect yourself from contracting or spreading a sexually transmitted infection.
The original term for infections transmitted primarily by sexual contact was venereal disease, or VD, and was used to refer to syphilis, gonorrhea, chancroid, and a few other rare conditions. As new conditions were discovered or understood for the first time to be transmitted sexually, “sexually transmitted disease,” or STD, became the standard term. More recently, “sexually transmitted infection” has been increasingly used, recognizing that many infections are asymptomatic and thus technically not "diseases." However, we now understand that even asymptomatic infections can cause serious complications or other harm. In modern usage, the two terms are synonymous; there is no significant difference between STD and STI, only the preference of some experts for one term or the other.
You can contract an STD through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex. Oral sex is inherently less risky for all STDs. STDs are rarely, if ever, transmitted by hand-to-genital contact, such as mutual masturbation, or by inserting fingers into body openings (‘fingering’). Some STDs are blood-borne, such as HIV and hepatitis B, and can also be spread through sharing needles with an infected person.
Anyone who engages in unprotected sexual contact is considered to be at risk for an STD. The more sexual partners you have, the higher your risk, but people with few partners are also at risk if their partners are sexually active in other relationships. Young adults tend to be at especially high risk for contracting an STD: half of all people diagnosed with an STD each year are between the ages of 15 and 24.
The only way to tell if you or your partner has an STD is to get tested. You can’t always spot an STD by its symptoms because often there aren’t any. If symptoms do show, they can take weeks or months to appear. Symptoms can also go away on their own, without treatment, but the disease may still be present and may progress to cause complications.
Other times, an STD can cause mild symptoms that are easily mistaken for another health problem, like a urinary tract infection or yeast infection.
There are more than 20 different sexually transmitted diseases. Most STDs fall into one of two groups: those caused by bacteria or parasites, which for the most part can be cured by antibiotics; and viruses, which cannot be cured by treatment and sometimes persist for life.
Common treatable STDs caused by bacteria or parasites include gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, nongonococcal urethritis (NGU), and trichomoniasis.
Viruses that cause STDs include HIV, human papillomavirus (HPV, which causes genital warts and cervical and other cancers), the herpes simplex viruses (HSV), and the hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C viruses. Although these viral STDs cannot be cured, treatment often is very effective in controlling the disease, easing or preventing symptoms and preventing transmission to partners.
Most STDs eventually go away on their own, or at least the immune system controls symptoms and limits complications. However, before the immune system clears them up, many STDs can cause severe and even life-threatening problems. That’s why if you have an STD, you need to be treated as soon as possible after diagnosis, even if you aren’t feeling any symptoms.
Most STDs require different treatments. Your doctor may prescribe medication or give you a shot. Some STDs still can spread when you’re receiving treatment, so it’s critical to communicate your health status with your current sex partner and use condoms for protection (or, if you have a bacterial STD, abstain from sex until the disease is out of your system).
It’s also important to note that you can become re-infected with an STD even if you’ve been diagnosed and treated before — so use protection each and every time you have sex outside of a mutually monogamous relationship.
It’s not the phone call anyone wants to make (or receive!), but you have an obligation to tell your current sex partner your STD status. If you’re diagnosed with an STD, it’s important that you contact your sex partners, sometimes going back a year or more, and make them aware of your diagnosis so they can be tested, seek treatment and perhaps warn other partners. Upfront communication is the best way to stop the spread of the disease and protect your partner’s (and their partner's) health. If the tables were turned, wouldn’t you want to know?
Having some of the more common STDs, like herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis or chlamydia, can significantly increase your risk for contracting HIV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person infected with an STD who is exposed to HIV through sexual contract is two to five times more likely to contract the infection than individuals without an STD. Having genital herpes puts you at an even greater risk of contracting HIV if you’re sexually exposed to the virus though an infected partner.
Herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia can cause lesions on your skin, making it easier for HIV to enter the body. In addition, some STDs can cause inflammation, leading to an increase in and concentration of immune cells, which are the cells that the virus targets. Even when STDs cause no symptoms, they still increase the risk of HIV if you’re exposed, so it’s crucial to get tested and treated for STDs. Regular STD testing can help keep you and your partner healthy.