An Overview of Sexually Transmitted Diseases

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Sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, are diseases that primarily spread through sexual contact. There are a number of different STDs, such as herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, and HPV. Some infections are viral and others are bacterial.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates of several STDs are on the rise, with more than 2 million people treated in 2017. Between 2013 and 2017, cases of syphilis increased by 76 percent, gonorrhea by 67 percent, and chlamydia by 22 percent. New cases of HIV, however, declined between 2010 and 2016, with 38,700 new cases reported in 2016.

STDs are spread through body fluids, including blood, saliva, semen, vaginal secretions, and breast milk, or transmitted by direct skin-to-skin contact. Consistent use of condoms and other barriers can prevent STDs transmitted through body fluid, such as HIV and chlamydia, but may not offer protection against herpes and other diseases spread through skin-to-skin contact.

Symptoms

Genital itching, burning, or pain are common symptoms of an STD, although some people do not experience any symptoms. Signs of an STD include:

  • Genital itching, swelling, or redness
  • Bumps, sores, warts, or rash near the mouth, anus, penis, or vagina
  • Unusual discharge from penis or vagina, which may or may not have an unusual order
  • Vaginal bleeding at times other than a monthly period
  • Painful urination
  • Painful sex
  • Aches, pains, fever, and chills
  • Jaundice
  • Weight loss, loose stools, and night sweats

Many STDs, however, have no symptoms and the vast majority of people with STDs have no symptoms but can still pass an infection to their partner.

Barrier methods are really effective at preventing infections, but having safe sex isn't a guarantee you won't get or give an STD. However, consistently using appropriate barriers greatly reduces the odds. Oral sex can easily pass on certain STDs as well, and a growing number of genital herpes cases are caused by unprotected oral sex.

Causes

Sexually transmitted diseases are caused by intimate contact with an infected partner. Diseases that are transmitted only by body fluids, such as HIV and chlamydia can be prevented with consistent use of barriers during sex.

It's much harder to completely prevent those diseases that spread from skin-to-skin, like herpes. Barriers help, but it simply isn't practical to cover all potentially infectious skin.

If you're sexually active, you're at least at some risk of getting an STD.

The only time when that is not true is if you're in a mutually monogamous relationship in which both people have tested negative. Furthermore, even that isn't perfect. There are some STDs that doctors can't, or don't, test for. 

Not all sex is equally risky. Anal intercourse is generally considered the riskiest. That's followed by vaginal intercourse and oral sex. Fingering and fisting also pose some risks as does the use of sex toys, potentially. Fortunately, all of these activities can be made safer by consistently and correctly practicing safe sex

Not all partners are equally at risk either. However, there's no simple way to determine a person's level of risk by looking at them. Risk is based far more on geography, history, and behavior than age, race, sexual orientation, or gender. That's one of the many reasons it's a good idea to sit down and talk with your partner before having sex. 

Diagnosis

If you think you may have an STD because you have symptoms or had sex with an infected partner, talk to your doctor. Your doctor will perform a physical examination and run tests for common STDs.

The only way to know if you have an STD is to get tested. It's impossible to diagnose most STDs by looking at yourself even if you do have symptoms. That's why regular STD screening is so important for anyone having sex outside of a mutually monogamous relationship.

Tests your doctor will perform may include a urine sample, cheek swab, blood work, or fluid samples such as discharge from sores. In addition, your doctor may take cell cultures from the penis, vagina, urethra, cervix, anus, or throat.

You may need to wait a period before an STD test will show accurate results or need to be retested at a later date.

Treatment

If you have an STD, it is important to get treated and prevent infecting others. Treatment varies based on the source of the infection.

Viral infections, such as herpes, HPV, and HIV, are usually treated with oral antiviral or antiretroviral medications. However, most viral STDs cannot be cured and these medications are used to treat the symptoms, prevent recurring outbreaks, and halt the progression of the disease.

Bacterial infections, such as syphilischlamydia, and gonorrhea, are treated with antibiotics. Unlike viral STDs, they are generally curable with the right treatment.

Other types of STDs can be treated topically or orally. For examples, scabies can be treated either using drugs you take by mouth or through the use of topical agents. Pubic lice are treated topically. Sexually associated yeast infections can be treated either orally or with creams.

Coping

Finding out that you have an STD can be pretty stressful, but don't panic. People are often terrified that others will judge them for having an STD, but the stigma is worse than the reality.

Sitting down with a partner after an STD diagnosis isn't an easy thing to do. Many people want to either lie or place blame, neither of which is helpful. What you want to do is have a discussion about what you know, what you don't know, and what you want to do.

If you've been diagnosed, any current partners should be tested. They should also be treated if doing so is relevant. You might also talk to recent partners who you might have exposed or who might have exposed you. Things you might want to consider include:

  • Whether you want to or need to take a break from sex during the testing and/or treatment period.
  • If you want to change your safer sex practices.
  • Whether suppressive therapy or other forms of treatment could help reduce the risk of passing on your condition to each other or other partners.

A Word From Verywell

People are often terrified of an STD diagnosis and may avoid doctors and testing. The truth is, however, that STDs aren't the end of the world. They are incredibly common and something that you can live with.

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