Are Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) Curable?

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are spread through sexual contact. Vaginal, oral, and anal sexual activities are the most common transmission route. However, other types of intimate contact, such as kissing, have spread STIs on rare occasions.

Various pathogens cause STIs, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites. While some STIs are curable, some will remain in your body for life once you contract the infection.

This article discusses curable and non-curable STIs.

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The Most Common STIs

The most commonly reported STIs in the United States are:

Genital herpes and HPV are caused by a virus, while chlamydia and gonorrhea are caused by bacteria. Trichomoniasis is a parasitic infection.

Bacterial vs. Viral STIs

Bacterial STIs are curable. However, viral STIs are not. Viruses remain in the body for life, whereas bacteria are killed using antibiotics. The only viral exception is HPV, which the body's immune system can, in some cases, fight off.

Which Ones Are Curable?

STIs caused by bacteria can be cured using medication. The following four STIs fall under the curable category:

Syphilis

Syphilis is caused by a bacterium known as Treponema pallidum. When someone gets syphilis, they may first experience mild symptoms such as one lone sore where the bacteria entered the body. However, if left untreated, the infection will continue progressing over time as it goes through four different stages, each of which can have different symptoms.

Treatment for syphilis involves the use of an antibiotic called penicillin. The medicine kills the syphilis bacteria to cure the body of the infection. Antibiotics work during any stage of the disease. That said, later stages may require stronger or more lengthy treatments.

Choosing the Right Antibiotic

Treating syphilis requires the right antibiotic. Penicillin is the first-line therapy for syphilis because the bacteria that causes the infection is resistant to other types of antibiotics, such as macrolides.

Gonorrhea

The bacteria known as Neisseria gonorrhoeae causes gonorrhea. Many people with gonorrhea are asymptomatic (experience no symptoms) when infected, making it much easier to spread to others unknowingly. The antibiotic used to treat gonorrhea is Ceftriaxone.

Gonorrhea and Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotic resistance occurs when the bacteria become strong enough to combat the antibiotics. Gonorrhea is becoming increasingly resistant to the first-line therapy designed to treat it. Eventually, the medication used to eliminate the infection will no longer work.

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is caused by the chlamydia trachomatis bacteria. Like gonorrhea, chlamydia often presents without symptoms, making it much easier to spread to others. Antibiotics to cure someone of chlamydia are administered in two ways:

  • One single dose
  • One dose daily for seven days 

The most commonly used antibiotics are azithromycin and doxycycline.

Directly Observed Therapy and Chlamydia

Sometimes, a healthcare provider may request you take the chlamydia medication in front of them. However, research has shown no difference in the rates of successful treatment in people who take the medication unsupervised versus supervised.

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis is a parasitic STI caused by a protozoan parasite known as Trichomonas vaginalis. Protozoans are single-celled, microscopic animals.

Most people with trichomoniasis don’t have any symptoms, making it much easier to unknowingly pass the infection to others.

Medication is used to cure trichomoniasis. The first-choice medicine is a type of antiprotozoal and antibiotic known as metronidazole.

The Most Common Curable STI

Trichomoniasis is the most common curable STI, with 2 million people diagnosed in 2018 alone.  

Which Ones Are Incurable?

Viral STIs have no cure. When the virus enters the body, it stays there for life. That doesn’t mean you will always experience symptoms if you have a viral STI. The virus itself can become dormant, when they are in the body, but not active. 

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus. When someone contracts the virus through sexual contact, it impacts liver function. Hepatitis B can be spread from mother to child during birth or by sharing needles.

Symptoms do not develop in everyone, but when they do, they can feel like the flu. Hepatitis B can be a short- or long-term (chronic) illness. The majority of the time, the body clears it on its own. Long-term, it can lead to liver cancer or cirrhosis. While there is no cure for hepatitis B, there is a vaccine that can help prevent it.

Is There Treatment for Hepatitis B?

Treatments for short-term symptoms revolve around easing symptoms until the virus becomes dormant. Long-term treatments involve antiviral medications and regular monitoring to watch for liver damage.  

Herpes

The herpes simplex virus causes herpes. There are two types of herpes:

  • Genital, typically caused by herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2)
  • Oral, typically caused by herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1)

Both types of herpes are incurable and remain in the body for life. It can be hard to determine if you have a herpes infection immediately because the symptoms are often mild if they appear at all.

Both types go through patterns of dormancy and active infection. Dormancy presents with no symptoms, and active infection presents with sores in the genital or mouth areas. When the infection cycles into active symptoms, it is called an outbreak.

Outbreak Prevention

While herpes is incurable, there are ways to prevent outbreaks or shorten how long they last. Antiviral medications, such as valacyclovir, acyclovir, and famciclovir, are typically the first choice to manage this infection.

HIV

HIV is a viral infection caused by the human immunodeficiency virus. When the virus enters the body, it begins attacking the immune system. While there is no cure, it is highly manageable through medications.

If someone contracts HIV and doesn’t get treated, they can develop acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Signs of HIV

Some early signs of HIV include:

  • Mouth ulcers
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Some people may be asymptomatic (show no symptoms), so the only way to be sure is to get tested. If you notice any of these symptoms, you must see your healthcare provider because getting early treatment for HIV can help prevent worse health complications such as AIDS.

HPV

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is an STI caused by the human papillomavirus. There are many different types of viruses that fall under the umbrella category of HPV.

Not all types of HPV cause symptoms or health problems. In roughly 90% of cases, the infection goes away on its own within two years. Unlike other viral STIs, HPV doesn’t automatically linger in the body for life.

That said, an HPV infection that persists and manages to evade the immune system can develop into genital warts or various cancers, including:

Pap smears and HPV testing are used for cervical cancer screening and play an important role in detecting early changes and preventing cervical cancer. If you have a cervix, ensure you are up to date on this important test for your health.

There is also a safe and effective vaccine you can get to protect yourself.

When to See Your Healthcare Provider

It can be hard to determine if you have any of the STIs mentioned above if they are not presenting with symptoms. You can best take care of your reproductive health by getting screened for STIs yearly or after having condomless sexual contact.

Managing Incurable STIs

Having an incurable STI may not be easy to cope with, but advancements have made them easier to manage. There are several medications that you can take to control the infection and symptoms.

The most crucial aspect of management is ensuring that the infections do not become more serious, as is the case with HPV and HIV. With the proper treatment, you don’t have to suffer from the symptoms and can maintain a fulfilling life.

STI Support

If you have an incurable STI, you must get the proper support. You could reach out to friends, family, or support groups for others in the same health position. Having a solid circle around you will make it easier to cope with the changes after being diagnosed with an incurable STI.

Summary

The most common STIs fall into two categories: curable and incurable. Bacteria or parasites cause curable STIs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis. They are treated using specific antibiotics or antiparasitic medication.

The most common incurable STIs include HIV, HPV, hepatitis B, and herpes. Viruses cause incurable STIs. While they typically remain in the body for life, except for some HPV cases, they do not always cause issues. When they do, treatments are made available so you can better manage symptoms or outbreaks.

A Word From Verywell 

Getting diagnosed with an STI can be a scary experience. It’s unlikely that you expected a positive result when you got the phone call from your healthcare provider. The good news is that many of the most common STIs are curable with a straightforward course of antibiotic treatments.

Even if you have an incurable STI, advancements in medicine have made it so that even viral infections that used to cause severe damage are controllable and void of serious harm. That said, the best thing you can do to avoid having to cure or manage an STI is to engage in safer sex practices and get screened regularly.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How are STIs transmitted?

    STIs are mainly spread through sexual contact. The types of sexual contact can include vaginal, oral, or anal. In some rare cases, STIs can be transmitted through kissing.

  • How can you reduce your risk of contracting an STI?

    To reduce your risk of getting an STI, you can engage in safer sex practices. That means wearing a condom during all types of sexual activity. Regardless of your sexual lifestyle, wearing condoms will significantly reduce your risk of contracting an STI.

  • How common are STIs?

    STIs are widespread. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 20% of Americans have an STI at any given time. That accounts for all types of STIs and amounts to roughly 68 million people.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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