Sexually Transmitted Infections

Also referred to as Sexually Transmitted Diseases or STD’s

(We refer to these conditions as Sexually Transmitted Infections because an infection is when you have the bacteria or virus, whereas the disease is the problem the infection causes sometimes.)

Sexually transmitted infections are spread by sexual contact, whether vaginal, anal, or oral. The infections may be bacterial or viral. Most STIs caused by bacteria can be cured with antibiotics. STIs spread by viruses may be prevented with vaccines but usually cannot be cured medically; however, some viruses can be cured by the body’s own immune system.

You are at increased risk of getting an STI if you or your sexual partner:

  • has had more than one sexual partner
  • has sex with someone who has an STI
  • has previously contracted an STI
  • uses “street” drugs that are injected into a vein

STI symptoms

STI symptoms can range from mild irritation to severe pain. For women, STI symptoms can include:

  • vaginal discharge, itching or burning
  • painful or frequent urination
  • abdominal or pelvic pain
  • redness or swelling of the external genital organs
  • bleeding between periods
  • swollen or enlarged lymph nodes (small immune system organs found in the neck and elsewhere in the body)
  • genital or anal warts

Left untreated, STIs can cause many undesirable or dangerous conditions, including infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease (infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes or ovaries) and cancer.

Common types of STIs

Genital herpes is a virus that often causes recurring red spots, bumps or blisters on or around the genitals. These sores can last from a few days to a few weeks. Treatment can help prevent and heal the sores. To prevent the spread of infection, make sure that lesions and their secretions do not touch another person’s skin, and wash your hands with soap and water after any possible contact with lesions.

Gonorrhea and chlamydia are caused by bacteria. Symptoms can include vaginal burning, bleeding, itching and discharge as well as pelvic pain. These STIs often occur at the same time and can be treated with antibiotics at the same time. To be effective, your sexual partner also must be treated. Sexual contact should be avoided until treatments are completed.

Hepatitis B and C are liver infections caused by a virus and spread by bodily fluid, including blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and saliva. There is a vaccine that prevents hepatitis B infection, but there is no similar vaccine for hepatitis C. While most people recover completely, some develop long-term health problems.

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) enters the bloodstream by way of bodily fluids, usually blood or semen. HIV weakens the body’s natural defenses against disease, which can lead to AIDS. With AIDS, a person’s immune system is so weakened that other life-threatening conditions such as cancer or serious infection can occur. Although there is no cure for HIV, treatment may prevent or delay the onset of AIDS.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common STIs in the United States. There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some cause warts and some cause cell changes that can lead to cancer of the cervix, vagina, vulva and throat. Over time, the body’s immune system cures most HPV infections, but they must be followed closely to make sure damage does not become worse. Some types of HPV can be prevented by a vaccine called GARDASIL®.

Syphilis is caused by a type of bacteria. Although many people who have syphilis have no symptoms, syphilis often causes skin sores, warts or a rash. The sores can appear on or near genitals, lips or mouth. The bacteria can be passed to another person through direct contact with the affected area. Syphilis can generally be treated with antibiotics. If not treated, it can damage the heart, aorta, brain, eyes, and bones, causing major health problems and even death.

Trichomonas is a tiny parasite that is spread through sex. It may cause no symptoms or it can cause symptoms such as vaginal itching, redness or discharge. It can be cured with antibiotics.

How to prevent STIs

Following are a few ways to avoid STI infection:

Vaccination. Vaccines are available that can prevent hepatitis B and some of the most common HPV types. However, vaccines do not work if you have already been infected.

Know your sexual partners and limit their number. Remember that your partner’s sexual history is as important as your own, and that the more sexual partners you or your partners have, the higher your risk of getting an STI.

Use a latex condom every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. This decreases the chances of infection.

Avoid risky sex practices. Sexual acts such as anal penetration that can tear or break the skin carry a higher risk of STIs. Even small cuts that do not bleed let germs pass back and forth. Anal sex poses a high risk because tissues in the rectum break easily.

If you think you might have an STI

In most cases, long-term health problems can be avoided or minimized by early treatment. If you think you have an STI, you should immediately seek medical treatment to avoid or minimize long-term health problems.

STI diagnosis may involve a blood or urine test or a swab of the affected area. In addition, you may undergo a Pap test (which can find changes in the cells of the cervix that may lead to cancer) or a colposcopy, which is done when a Pap test result shows abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix.

Additional information

GARDASIL HPV vaccine website

Pap tests: American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists pamphlet

Colposcopy: American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists pamphlet