What are sexually transmitted diseases?
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections that pass from one person to another during sexual contact. They may also be called sexually transmitted infections, or STIs. Some of the more common STDs are chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, crab lice, syphilis, HPV and genital warts, trichomonas, HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), and hepatitis A, B, and C. Some of these diseases are more dangerous than others. Some can be prevented with vaccines or cured with antibiotics, but for others, like herpes or HIV, there is no cure. Some can make you very sick or cause death.
You can have one of these diseases and not know it because you don’t have any symptoms and don’t feel sick. You can then spread the disease to sexual partners. Or you may know that you have an STD but are too embarrassed to talk about it with your sexual partner. Sexual partners can get the disease if you donâ€™t practice safe sex every time.
STDs can make it hard or impossible for a woman to get pregnant. They can also increase the risk that a woman will have a tubal pregnancy, which can be very dangerous. Some infections may increase the risk for early labor and premature birth. STDs can spread from a pregnant mother to her baby and cause the baby to have birth defects or die.
Males can also become infertile from gonorrhea or chlamydia infections.
What is the cause?
Bacteria, viruses, and parasites cause STDs. They are usually passed between partners during sex. This includes vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, oral sex, skin-to-skin contact in the genital area, kissing, and the use of sex toys, such as vibrators. Hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV can also spread through IV drug use.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms depend on the type of STD. Some STDs may not cause symptoms until years after you are infected. Others may start within a few days. Symptoms may include:
- Burning or pain when urinating
- Unusual discharge from the vagina or penis
- Itching, burning, or pain around the vagina, penis, or rectum
- Rashes, sores, blisters, or painless wart-like growths around the vagina, penis, or rectum
- Pain in the belly, penis, or vagina with sex
- Sore throat
- Vaginal bleeding between menstrual periods
How are they diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. You may have tests, such as blood or urine tests.
How are they treated?
Some STDs can be cured with antibiotic medicine, especially when they are diagnosed and treated early. There is no cure for STDs caused by a virus, like herpes, HIV, HPV, and genital warts. However, treatment of these infections can help decrease discomfort and help avoid complications. If you cannot afford to pay for treatment, most communities have an STD clinic or county health department where visits are free of charge or cost a very small amount.
You can get the same STD again, even if you have had it once and have been treated.
How can I take care of myself?
Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. Ask your healthcare provider:
- How and when you will hear your test results
- What other STDs or STIs you should be tested for
- How long it will take to recover
- What activities you should avoid and when you can return to normal activities
- When it is safe to start having sex again
- How to take care of yourself at home
- What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.
- Tell everyone with whom you have had sex in the last 3 months about your infection. Or you can ask the clinic staff to tell them. They will not use your name. Your sexual contacts need to be treated even if they donâ€™t have any symptoms.
- Donâ€™t have sex until both you and your partner have finished all of the medicine and your provider says it’s OK. Then always use condoms every time you have sex.
How can I help prevent STDs?
- Use latex or polyurethane condoms during foreplay and every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex.
- Have just 1 sexual partner who is not sexually active with anyone else.
- If you have had sex without a condom and are worried that you may have been infected, see your healthcare provider even if you donâ€™t have symptoms.
- If you have been raped or sexually assaulted, you may need to be treated to prevent STDs. You should have an exam within a few hours of the assault (and before showering or bathing) even if you donâ€™t want to press charges.
Some STDs can be prevented by a vaccine.
- The HPV vaccine prevents types of HPV (human papillomavirus) infection that are high risk for genital warts and cancer of the cervix. HPV shots are approved for females and males aged 9 to 26. Itâ€™s best to get the HPV vaccine before having sex for the first time.
- Shots that prevent hepatitis B infection have been given to newborns in the US since the early 1990s. You should get the shots if you did not get them as a baby and are 12 to 24 years old or at risk of infection.
- A shot to protect against hepatitis A is also available for people at risk (for example, men who have sex with men).
You can get more information from:
- Your healthcare provider or the health department
- A family planning or STD clinic
- The Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
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This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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