When planning a hot, romantic night under the sheets, you might not want to think about STDs. If you’re happily smitten with your long-time partner, you may not think you have to. But the possibility of infections and diseases are as much a part of sex as the fun is. Both men and women get them.
STDs can be caused by bacteria, parasites, and viruses. Anyone who partakes in sexual activity runs the risk of getting an infection. Some factors that increase the likelihood include unprotected sex, multiple partners, and having a history of STDs.
STDs also have the potential to be transmitted through childbirth. In fact, this can potentially cause serious problems for the baby. With this in mind, pregnant women should be screened before delivery.
Knowledge is power when it comes to your sexual health. Recognizing the symptoms is a start, but you won’t always notice chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and other STDs. You will need to get tested to protect yourself — and your partner.
Complications that may eventually arise due to having an STD include pelvic pain, pregnancy complications, eye inflammation, arthritis, pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, heart disease, and certain cancers.
Some of the most common STDs include:
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
- Genital herpes
HPV (Human Papillomavirus)
HPV is the most common STD. The CDC reports that nearly 80 million people are infected with HPV in the United States, including 14 million teenagers.
More than 40 types of HPV can be spread sexually. You can get them through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. You can get them by skin-to-skin contact, too.
This infection generally presents with no symptoms, although some people may experience warts on the genitals, mouth, or throat. Certain types of HPV can lead to cancer, such as cervical or oral cancer.
There is no treatment for HPV. Rather, the infection often clears up on its own. Still, it’s vital to receive regular STD testing if you are sexually active to learn if you have acquired this infection and if you have the strain (HPV 16 or HPV 18) that may lead to cancer.
Three vaccines (Cevarix, Gardasil, and Gardasil-9) protect against these cancers. Gardasil and Gardasil-9 also protect against genital warts, vaginal cancer, and anal cancer. The CDC recommends young women and men ages 11 to 26 get vaccinated for HPV. The HPV vaccine is also approved for women and men up to age 45 — talk to your doctor to see if it is right for you. A Pap smear can show most cervical cancers caused by HPV early on.
Chlamydia is the most reported STD in the U.S. It’s spread mainly through vaginal or anal sex, but you can get it through oral sex, too. Sometimes you’ll notice an odd discharge from your vagina or penis or pain or burning when you pee. But only about 25% of women and 50% of men get symptoms.
Chlamydia is caused by bacteria, so it is treated with antibiotics. After you are treated, you should get retested in one to three months, even if your partner has been treated. Check with your doctor about when to get tested again to ensure the infection is gone.
Untreated chlamydia can cause serious health complications for women, as the infection can spread to the uterus and fallopian tubes and lead to pelvic inflammatory disease. In addition, this condition could result in permanent damage to the reproductive system.
The best way to prevent chlamydia is to engage in safe sex by always using condoms and getting regular STD testing if you are sexually active (especially if you’re not in a monogamous relationship with a disease-free partner).
The third most common STD (and second most reported one), gonorrhea, is a bacterial infection that can be successfully treated with antibiotics. Delaying treatment, however, can lead to medical complications. Like chlamydia, untreated gonorrhea can result in pelvic inflammatory disease in women. It can also increase one’s risk of contracting HIV.
Most gonorrhea cases don’t present with symptoms, but some of the most common signs of this infection include:
- Painful urination
- Abnormal discharge from the genitals
- Bleeding between periods (in women)
- Swollen testicles (in men)
A mother can pass on gonorrhea to her baby during childbirth. Therefore, medical professionals encourage pregnant women to undergo STD testing before birth.
Syphilis is a tricky disease with four stages: primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. Each stage has different signs and symptoms. In the primary stage, the main symptom is a sore. Sometimes syphilis is called the “great imitator” because the sore can look like a cut, an ingrown hair, or a harmless bump. Sores appear on or around the penis, vagina, anus, in the rectum, on the lips, or in the mouth. These sores are usually (but not always) firm, round and painless. The secondary stage can include a fever, skin rash, and swollen lymph nodes. Symptoms usually disappear in the third, or latent, stage. This stage can last for years or the rest of your life. Only about 15% of people with untreated syphilis will develop the final stage. In the tertiary stage, it causes severe medical problems, affecting the heart, brain, and other body organs. If untreated, syphilis may extend into the brain and the eye.
Your doctor can give you antibiotics to treat syphilis. The earlier treatment starts, the fewer antibiotics you’ll need and the more quickly they work.
Genital herpes is prevalent and does not always have symptoms; or, the symptoms are so mild, you may not know you are infected.
Genital herpes is caused by two strains: herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). You can catch one or both. HSV-1 causes cold sores on your face. However, it can be transmitted to the genital area through oral sex with an infected person. HSV-2 causes genital herpes and is transmitted by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with an infected person. The main symptom of HSV-2 is painful blisters around the penis, vagina, or anus. But you might get blisters inside your vagina or anus where you can’t see or feel them. Not everyone who has herpes gets blisters.
Herpes is easy to contract. All it takes is skin-to-skin contact, including areas a condom doesn’t cover. You’re most contagious when you have blisters, but you don’t need them to pass the virus along.
Because herpes is a virus, you can’t cure it. But you can take medication to manage it. Medicines are available that can shorten the length of an outbreak and lessen the severity of symptoms.
Trichomoniasis, or “trich/trick,” is the most common curable STI. Trich is caused by infection with a parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. Infection can increase your risk of getting or spreading other STIs, including HIV.
More women than men get trichomoniasis. Men and women can give it to each other through penis-vagina contact. Women can give it to each other when their genital areas touch. Only about 30% of people with trichomoniasis have symptoms, including itching, burning, or sore genitals. You might also see a smelly, clear, white, yellowish, or greenish discharge.
Trichomoniasis is treated with antibiotics. To avoid reinfection, all sex partners should be treated with antibiotics at the same time. All partners should also wait to have sex again until everyone has been treated and symptoms go away (usually about a week).
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that can develop into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). If AIDS develops, an infected person’s immune system weakens, and important immune system cells that fight disease and infection are destroyed over time.
It’s passed through body fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. You can get it by having vaginal or anal intercourse with an infected person without a condom or by sharing a needle with someone who is infected. You can’t get HIV from saliva or by kissing.
Symptoms of HIV infection are vague. They can feel like the flu, with muscle aches, fatigue, or a slight fever. You could also lose weight or have diarrhea. The only sure way to tell if you’ve been infected is to get saliva or blood testing.
HIV can take years to destroy your immune system. Past a certain point, your body loses its ability to fight off infections. There’s no cure for HIV, but powerful drugs can help people with HIV live long lives.
The only way to completely protect yourself against STIs is not to have oral, vaginal, or anal sex (abstinence). If you decide to have sex, the following actions will help reduce your risk of getting an STI:
- Talk with your partner about how you both plan to prevent STIs and pregnancy
- Talk about birth control methods
- Get vaccinated. Vaccines are available for HPV, hepatitis A, and hepatitis B
- Get tested for STIs before having sex – both you and your partner
- Learn how to use a condom properly
- Always use a condom with vaginal, anal, or oral sex, from start to finish, with a new condom for each sex act
- Be monogamous – you and your partner only have sexual contact with each other
- Avoid mixing alcohol and drug use with sex, which makes people more likely to take risks