Discussing sexually transmitted diseases (aka STDs, sexually transmitted infections or STIs) can be very uncomfortable. The most important part of understanding STDs is learning about proper screening and prevention. In fact, it’s critical to know that with every sexual encounter you should use protection. And when I say protection, I mean condoms! Why? Other methods of contraception DO NOT PREVENT STDs!
Before engaging in sexual activity with a new partner be sure to discuss safe sex and get checked. If you’re not comfortable talking with your partner about condoms, contraception, or sexually transmitted infections, you should not be having sex. Plain and simple.
Screening should be performed annually on everyone starting at age 16-24, due to the high risk of transmission in this age group. Before age 16 or after age 24, screening can be performed at the patient’s request or doctor’s discretion based on high-risk behaviors. This includes multiple partners, frequently changing partners, IV drug use, etc.
The good news is most are treatable infections! However, some are not and they can detrimentally affect you for the rest of your life.
Did I mention you should use condoms?! Anyways, let’s talk about the most common STDs.
The most common curable STDs
Chlamydia and Gonorrhea
Chlamydia and gonorrhea are bacterial infections that can cause pelvic pain, penile discharge and burning with urination. On the other hand, they can also be asymptomatic, especially in women. Therefore, so don’t assume you’ve never had an STD if you’ve never been checked. If left untreated, chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause infertility and full body (systemic) disease. If diagnosed with these infections, your doctor will treat you with antibiotics. Also, they are classically treated together since they’re frequently contracted at the same time.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that has many stages and presentations. Its first presentation is a painless lesion on the shaft of the penis or inside a woman’s vagina/labia. Since it’s painless, it often goes unnoticed. Its second presentation has symptoms resembling a viral upper respiratory infection (fever, headache, congestion, cough) followed by a full body rash including the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Its third presentation causes heart problems, joint problems, and neurological manifestations. If untreated, syphilis remains dormant in the body and can cause long-term side effects. Fortunately, depending on the stage, syphilis is successfully treated with varying amounts of the antibiotic penicillin.
Trichomoniasis is a bacterial infection that causes females to have a green-yellow, frothy, malodorous discharge from their vagina. This infection is asymptomatic in males. Like, chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, it’s also treated with antibiotics!
Note: All treatable STDs should be treated with a complete course of antibiotics in BOTH partners before resuming sexual activity. If this is not done, the infection is likely to recur as it’s passed back and forth between partners.
The most common incurable STDs
Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) Type 1 or 2
There are two types of herpes simplex virus (or HSV). HSV type 1 is typically oral and presents as a cold sore. However, due to the increasing precedence of oral sex, it is not just limited to oral anymore. In fact, nearly 80% of people will test positive for HSV type 1. On the other hand, HSV type 2 is typically genital. But again, due to the increasing precedence of oral sex, it’s no longer limited to your genitals. HSV is a viral infection that usually spreads with an open sore. It can be temporarily treated or suppressed if you have frequent recurrences but never completely goes away.
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
Human papillomavirus (or HPV) is a viral infection that has MANY types. Types 6 & 11 most commonly cause genital warts while types 16 & 18 can cause cervical and anal cancer. Fortunately, a childhood vaccination between the ages of 9 and 26 can prevent the most common types of infection. If contracted, genital warts can be removed and cancer can be treated, but the virus remains in the system forever.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (or HIV) is a retroviral infection that has evolving types. Since HIV continues to evolve, so does its treatment. While HIV can be suppressed with medications, it can never be eliminated from the body (at this point in time). If it progresses to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (or AIDS) it becomes very deadly.
Overall, proper STD screening and prevention can save you and your partner a lot of time, energy, and headaches. If you have any questions about how to practice safe sex or what to do if you think you have an STD, visit the CDC’s website or contact your primary care physician for more information!