How STIs Are Treated

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The only person who can determine the appropriate treatment for a sexually transmitted infection (STI) is a healthcare provider. A prescription medication is typically in order, and what you need depends on the type of infection you have. For example, chlamydia can be cured with antibiotics, while herpes can be managed (though not eliminated) with antiviral medication.

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In some cases, lifestyle changes, home remedies, and over-the-counter (OTC) options may also be recommended to help ease symptoms, promote healing, or prevent recurrence.

Treatment is individual and may be adjusted for any other issues that affect your overall physical health. Given the potential consequences of untreated STIs and the risk of passing them on to others, early and accurate treatment is imperative.

Bacterial STI Treatment

STIs caused by bacterial infections include syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. These diseases are curable when treated with the right antibiotics. Your healthcare provider will determine the course of treatment based on local and current rates of antibiotic resistance.

Resistance can be a consequence of people failing to take their antibiotics correctly and, in particular, is a growing problem for gonorrhea infections across the globe.

Prescriptions

Antibiotics used to treat bacterial STIs may be administered as a single injection or pill or a course of pills taken over several days.

The antibiotic prescribed typically depends on the bacteria behind the infection. Here are common antibiotics prescribed for different infections:

  • Chlamydia: Zithromax (azithromycin), Vibramycin (doxycycline)
  • Gonorrhea: Rocephin (ceftriaxone) or, if allergic to it, Gentak (gentamicin) plus azithromycin
  • Syphilis: Penicillin G or, if allergic to penicillin, other antibiotics such as doxycycline, Sumycin (tetracycline), Moxatag (amoxicillin), and ceftriaxone
  • Chancroid: Azithromycin, ceftriaxone, Cipro (ciprofloxacin)

Viral STI Treatments

STIs caused by viruses include herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), and HIV. These are usually treated with oral antiviral or antiretroviral medications. Most viral STIs can be managed but do not have cures.

Both herpes and HIV are currently life-long infections, but that may change with new research.

Some viral STIs, such as HPV, aren't treated at all unless they cause problems. With HPV, most infections go away on their own within two years. However, problems such as genital warts or cervical dysplasia may need treatment.

Prescriptions

There are several medications available by prescription for the treatment of viral STIs:

  • Herpes: Acyclovir, famciclovir, valacyclovir
  • Hepatitis B: Interferon alpha-2b or pegylated interferon, adefovir, entecavir, tenofovir, lamivudine
  • HPV: Podofilox, imiquimod, sinecatechins
  • HIV/AIDS: Antiretroviral medications are used to treat HIV and AIDS. The proper medication for you will depend on the stage of your condition. Prescriptions used to treat HIV and AIDS include enfuvirtide (T20), emtricitabine, tenofovir, abacavir, rilpivirine, etravirine, efavirenz, dolutegravir, elvitegravir, tipranavir, lopinavir/ritonavir, darunavir, maraviroc, and ibalizumab.

Over-the-Counter Therapies

While most viral STI treatments are available by prescription only, some OTC remedies are sometimes recommended:

  • Herpes: Abreva, an OTC docosanol cream, can help to shorten the duration of an outbreak of symptomatic oral herpes caused by HSV-1. In addition, oral pain relievers, like acetaminophen and ibuprofen, and topical pain relievers can make you more comfortable during a herpes flare-up. 
  • HIV/AIDS: Over-the-counter medications like acetaminophen and ibuprofen can relieve headaches and body aches, while topical creams containing capsaicin may ease peripheral neuropathy pain.

If you are taking antiviral medication, you may be at risk of decreased bone density. Ask your healthcare provider if you should supplement with vitamin D and calcium to protect bone health

Home Remedies and Lifestyle

Following a healthy diet, reducing stress, getting moderate exercise, and avoiding alcohol and tobacco can help keep you feeling your best and reduce outbreaks of symptoms from viral STIs.

Home remedies for STIs depend on symptoms and include:

  • Herpes: Apply a cold compress to the area during an outbreak, do not touch or scratch sores, keep sores clean and reduce stress to prevent reoccurrences.
  • Hepatitis B: Take care of your liver by avoiding alcohol and being careful about the use of medications that can harm the liver, such as acetaminophen. 
  • HIV/AIDS: Because HIV can impact your immune system, it is important to stay up-to-date with vaccinations.

Surgical and Medical Procedures

Medical and surgical procedures are sometimes recommended for the treatment of viral STIs. This includes:

  • HPV: Procedures to remove HPV genital warts include cryotherapy (freezing), electrocautery (burning), interferon injection into warts, laser treatment, and surgery.
  • Hepatitis: In some cases, significant liver damage can occur from hepatitis infections, and a liver transplant may be needed.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

If you have a viral STI, talk to your healthcare provider or pharmacist before taking any herbal medicines or nutritional supplements to ensure doing so is safe given any other medications you may be taking.

There are a few complementary treatments that are being explored for the treatment of certain viral STIs:

  • Herpes: Propolis, a sticky substance bees produce from tree sap, is found to speed the healing of herpes lesions. Algae extract is being studied as a possible herpes treatment. Some people also find relief of herpes pain from acupuncture. 
  • HIV/AIDS: Medical marijuana may help with pain, reduce nausea, and stimulate your appetite. (Check your state laws regarding medical marijuana.) In addition, yoga and meditation can help ease pain and alleviate feelings of stress and depression that often come with an HIV diagnosis.

Other STI Treatments

STIs that are not viral or bacterial can be caused by a parasite.

Trichomoniasis is caused by the protozoan parasite Trichomonas vaginalis and is commonly treated with oral antibiotics such as metronidazole and tinidazole. In addition, over-the-counter anti-itch creams designed for genital use can help ease symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

Getting treated and abstaining from sex during this time is important to protect your partner(s) from contracting an infection, but also to protect yourself from possible consequences of STIs.

Do not try to treat yourself for an STI using medication you have purchased over the internet or otherwise obtained without a prescription or with a medication you were given for a previous diagnosis without your healthcare provider's OK. Instead, take all medications as directed, finishing the course of treatment even after symptoms resolve. Failure to do so could lead to a resistant infection.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can STIs be cured?

    Some can. Bacterial and parasitic STIs are treated with the intent to cure. By contrast, viral STIs are managed rather than cured, either to prevent a recurrence, slow disease progression, or monitor for complications. Viral STIs like HSV, hepatitis B, and HIV are incurable.

  • Where can I get treated for an STI?

    Bacterial STIs can be treated at a healthcare provider's office or an STI clinic (including free clinics). HIV typically requires the care of an HIV specialist, while a hepatologist or gastroenterologist commonly treats hepatitis B. There is no specific treatment for HPV, although you may be referred to a gynecologist, urologist, or dermatologist for health problems that HPV can cause.

  • How long do I have to abstain from sex after STI treatment?

    If you are being treated for chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, or chancroid, healthcare providers will generally advise you to wait one week after completing treatment before having sex. With syphilis, you should not have sex until a follow-up blood test confirms that the infection has cleared.

  • Can you treat an STD on your own?

    No. All STDs require treatment by a healthcare provider. However, HPV usually goes away on its own and doesn't require treatment unless it causes problems.

  • What happens if I don’t get treated for an STI?

    This is never a good idea. Untreated gonorrhea and chlamydia can lead to infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, and ectopic pregnancy. Untreated syphilis can lead to vision loss, heart valve damage, aneurysm, and dementia years or decades later. Untreated HIV can progressively destroy the immune system and leave you vulnerable to a host of potentially life-threatening infections.

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