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Sexually Transmitted Diseases

What are sexually transmitted diseases?

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), also called sexually transmitted infections or STIs, are infections that pass from one person to another by sexual contact. Sexual contact includes vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, oral-genital contact, skin-to-skin contact in the genital area, kissing, and the use of sex toys, such as vibrators. The diseases usually affect the genital area, for example, the penis or vagina or surrounding skin. Other areas such as the mouth, throat, and anus can also be affected.

Examples of STDs are:

  • syphilis
  • gonorrhea
  • chlamydia
  • herpes
  • human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes genital warts and cervical cancer
  • hepatitis A, B, or C
  • trichomoniasis

Key facts about STDs are:

  • STDs affect men and women of all backgrounds and economic levels. They are most common in people less than 25 years old.
  • More people are being affected by STDs. Sexually active people today are more likely to have many sex partners during their lives. This puts them at a higher risk for STDs.
  • STDs may not cause symptoms for years. A person who is infected may not know it and may give the infection to a sex partner.
  • STDs cause more severe health problems for women than men. For example, they can cause scarring of a woman’s fallopian tubes. These are the tubes that normally carry eggs from the ovaries to the uterus. Scarring of the tubes can make it hard for the woman to get pregnant. If she does get pregnant, there is a chance she will have a tubal pregnancy, which can be very dangerous.
  • STDs can spread from a pregnant mother to her baby and cause serious problems or death. Syphilis, herpes, hepatitis B, and HIV can be especially serious infections for a newborn. Also, some infections may increase the risk for early labor and premature birth.

How do they occur?

Bacteria, viruses, and parasites cause STDs. They are usually passed between partners during sex. You can have an STD without knowing it. This means that you could infect your partner before you know you have an STD.

What are the symptoms?

Some possible symptoms of STDs are:

  • burning or pain when urinating
  • unusual discharge from the vagina or penis
  • itching, burning, or pain around the vagina, penis, or rectum
  • rashes, sores, blisters, or painless growths around the vagina, penis, or rectum
  • sore throat
  • vaginal bleeding between menstrual periods.

How are they diagnosed?

The diagnosis may be made from your symptoms, an exam, and usually lab tests.

How are they treated?

Some STDs can be cured with antibiotic medicine, especially when they are diagnosed and treated early. Some STDs caused by viruses, such as herpes, HIV, and HPV (genital warts), have no cure, but treatment can lessen or avoid complications. If you cannot afford to pay for treatment, most communities have an STD clinic or county health department where visits are free of charge or cost a very small amount.

How can I take care of myself?

Do not be embarrassed or afraid to seek care or ask for information. STD checks are a part of routine care at most medical offices and clinics. Remember that early diagnosis and treatment can prevent complications and keep you from spreading the disease to your partner. You can get more information and treatment from your healthcare provider, the health department, a family planning clinic, or an STD clinic. Make sure that you carefully follow your provider's treatment plan.

How can I help prevent STDs?

Some STDs can now be prevented by a vaccine.

  • An HPV vaccine is available for young women. The HPV shot is approved for females aged 9 to 26. It’s best to get the HPV shot before a young woman has any sexual activity. This is why it is recommended for girls aged 11 to 12. It is a 3-shot series. It protects against the 4 most common strains of the HPV virus that cause cancer of the cervix.
  • You can get shots that prevent hepatitis A and hepatitis B. Hepatitis B vaccine has been given to newborns in the US since the early 1990s. Many people born before then are not protected. The hepatitis B vaccine is recommended for all teens and young adults, age 12 to 24 years, who have not had hepatitis or the hepatitis B shots. It is also recommended for all unvaccinated adults who are at risk of infection. You may also need the hepatitis A vaccine if you are at risk of infection with the hepatitis A virus.

The best way to prevent STDs is to avoid sexual contact. This includes not having vaginal sex, anal sex, or oral sex. If you are sexually active, here are some steps you should take to lower your risk of getting infected:

  • Wait to have sexual relations as long as possible. The younger you are when you start having sex, the more likely it is that you will have an STD.
  • Have just 1 sexual partner who you know does not have an infection and who is not sexually active with anyone else.
  • Practice safe sex. Always use latex or polyurethane condoms during any sexual contact. Using condoms reduces the risk of infection for some STDs. However, condoms do not provide full protection against genital warts, syphilis, and herpes. They also do not protect against infections that can be spread with oral-anal sex. Do not reuse condoms.

If you are sexually active, always use a condom and have regular checkups for STDs, especially if you are having sex with a new partner.

If you think you might have an STD or may have been exposed to an STD, get checked by your healthcare provider before you have sex again.

You can get more information by calling 1-800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636), or visiting the CDC STD Web site at

Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-05-16
Last reviewed: 2011-03-03
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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