A sexually transmitted disease (STD) is a disease or infection that is spread from one person to another through sexual contact. Most STDs are caused by bacteria, parasites or viruses that are transmitted through contact with the genitals, skin, mouth, rectum or bodily fluids. Sexually transmitted diseases can cause problems ranging from mild irritation to severe pain. Left untreated, some STDs can cause illness, cancer and infertility, or harm to a fetus.
Types of Sexually Transmitted Diseases
There are many different types, including the following, of sexually transmitted diseases:
- Genital herpes
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
Different STDs have different causes. Gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia are caused by bacteria; trichomoniasis is caused by a parasite; and HPV, genital herpes and HIV are caused by viruses.
Causes of Sexually Transmitted Diseases
STDs are caused by a bacterial or viral infection that is spread through sexual contact. Anyone who is sexually active risks exposure to a sexually transmitted infection. People who may have a higher risk of contracting an STD include those who:
- Engage in unprotected sex
- Have multiple sexual partners
- Are already infected with an STD
- Abuse drugs or alcohol
- Share needles for drug use or tattoos
Certain sexually transmitted diseases, including chlamydia, HIV and syphilis, can be passed to a fetus during pregnancy or delivery.
Symptoms of Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Most sexually transmitted diseases have no symptoms at all, so people may not know they have been infected. When symptoms develop, they can vary depending on the specific type of STD, and include the following:
- Vaginal or penile discharge
- Pain during intercourse
- Painful urination
- Sores or blisters on the genitals
- Abdominal pain
If an STD is suspected, testing should be performed immediately. Early diagnosis and treatment are important to avoid severe health problems, and the spread of infection.
Diagnosis of Sexually Transmitted Diseases
A sexually transmitted disease is diagnosed through a physical examination and review of symptoms. Additional diagnostic tests include the following:
- Urine tests
- Blood tests
- Fluid samples
Periodic STD testing is recommended for people who are sexually active, especially those with multiple sexual partners. Pregnant women are also routinely screened for STDs, including HIV, hepatitis B, chlamydia and syphilis. This screening often takes place at the first prenatal visit.
Treatment of Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Treatment for a sexually transmitted disease varies depending on the specific type. Some STDs can be treated with antibiotics or antiviral medication. Viral infections can be managed but not always cured. Some medications help to ease the severity of symptoms. There is no cure available for HIV, but it can often be treated with a combination of medications. STDs are serious infections that can cause lifelong or recurring symptoms and side effects.
Prevention of Sexually Transmitted Diseases
The most effective way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases is to abstain from sexual activity. Other recommendations for avoiding STDs include the following:
- Remaining in a long-term monogamous relationship
- Using condoms
- Avoiding intercourse with new partners until after STD testing
HPV vaccinations are recommended for males and females between the ages of 9 and 26 who are not yet sexually active. This vaccination helps to prevent specific strains of HPV, and is administered as three separate injections over the course of six months.
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