Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections that can be transferred from one person to another through any type of sexual contact. STDs are sometimes referred to as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) since they involve the transmission of a disease-causing organism from one person to another during sexual activity.
It is important to realize that sexual contact includes more than just sexual intercourse (vaginal and anal).
Sexual contact includes kissing, oral-genital contact, and the use of sexual “toys,” such as vibrators.
STDs probably have been around for thousands of years, but the most dangerous of these conditions, the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS or HIV disease), has only been recognized since 1984.
Many STDs are treatable, but effective cures are lacking for others, such as HIV, HPV, and hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
Even gonorrhea, once easily cured, has become resistant to many of the older traditional antibiotics. Many STDs can be present in, and spread by, people who do not have any symptoms of the condition and have not yet been diagnosed with an STD.
Therefore, public awareness and education about these infections and the methods of preventing them is important.
There really is no such thing as “safe” sex. The only truly effective way to prevent STDs is abstinence. Sex in the context of a monogamous relationship wherein neither party is infected with an STD also is considered “safe.”
Most people think that kissing is a safe activity.
But unfortunately, syphilis, herpes, and other infections can be contracted through this relatively simple and apparently harmless act.
All other forms of sexual contact carry some risk. Condoms are commonly thought to protect against STDs.
Condoms are useful in decreasing the spread of certain infections, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea; however, they do not fully protect against other infections such as genital herpes, genital warts, syphilis, and AIDS.
Prevention of the spread of STDs is dependent upon the counseling of at-risk individuals and the early diagnosis and treatment of infections.
Prevention for Women
All women should take certain preventive measures to avoid catching or transmitting STDs.
According to the Office on Women’s Health, you should talk to your doctor about STD testing if you are sexual active.
Women should get a Pap smear every year, and should ask their doctor whether the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination is suggested for them. It’s also important to ask if you should be tested for any other STDs.
Insist Your Partner Wear a Condom
Whether it’s for vaginal, anal, or oral sex, a condom can help protect you both. Spermicides and other forms of contraception may protect against pregnancy but they do not protect against STDs.
Female condoms and dental dams can provide a certain level of protection. Opinion is still divided as to whether they are as effective as the male condom in preventing transmission of STDs.
Honest communication with both your doctor and your partner about sexual history is essential.
What is chlamydia?
Chlamydia (Chlamydia trachomatis) is a bacterium that causes an infection that is very similar to gonorrhea in the way that it is spread and the symptoms it produces.
It is common and affects approximately 4 million women annually. Like gonorrhea, the chlamydia bacterium is found in the cervix and urethra and can live in the throat or rectum.
Both infected men and infected women frequently lack symptoms of chlamydia infection.
Thus, these individuals can unknowingly spread the infection to others. Another strain (type) of Chlamydia trachomatis, which can be distinguished in specialized laboratories, causes the STD known as lymphogranuloma venereum.
What is syphilis?
Syphilis is an STD that has been around for centuries. It is caused by a bacterial organism called a spirochete. The scientific name for the organism is Treponema pallidum.
The spirochete is a wormlike, spiral-shaped organism that wiggles vigorously when viewed under a microscope. It infects the person by burrowing into the moist, mucous-covered lining of the mouth or genitals.
The spirochete produces a classic, painless ulcer known as a chancre.
What is genital herpes?
Genital herpes, also commonly called “herpes,” is a viral infection by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) that is transmitted through intimate contact with the mucous-covered linings of the mouth or the vagina or the genital skin. The virus enters the linings or skin through microscopic tears.
Once inside, the virus travels to the nerve roots near the spinal cord and settles there permanently.
When an infected person has a herpes outbreak, the virus travels down the nerve fibers to the site of the original infection. When it reaches the skin, the typical redness and blisters occur.
After the initial outbreak, subsequent outbreaks tend to be sporadic. They may occur weekly or even years apart.
What are HPVs?
More than 40 types of HPV, which are the cause of genital warts (also known as condylomata acuminata or venereal warts), can infect the genital tract of men and women.
These warts are primarily transmitted during sexual contact. Other, different HPV types generally cause common warts elsewhere on the body.
HPV infection has long been known to be a cause of cervical cancer and other anogenital cancers in women, and it has also been linked with both anal and penile cancer in men.
HPV infection is now considered to be the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US, and it is believed that at a majority of the reproductive-age population has been infected with sexually transmitted HPV at some point in life.
What is chancroid?
Chancroid is an infection caused by the bacterium Hemophilus ducreyi, which is passed from one sexual partner to another.
It begins in a sexually exposed area of the genital skin, most commonly the penis and vulva (the female external genital organs including the labia, clitoris, and entrance to the vagina).
Chancroid starts out as a tender bump that emerges 3 to10 days (the incubation period) after the sexual exposure. The cells that form the bump then begin to die, and the bump becomes an ulcer (an open sore) that is usually painful.
Often, there is an associated tenderness and swelling of the glands (lymph nodes) in the groin that normally drain lymph (tissue fluid) from the genital area; however, the painful ulcer and tender lymph nodes occur together in only about one-third of infections.
Chancroid is common in developing countries but is a relatively rare cause of genital ulcers in the U.S.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS)
Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) weakens the body’s immune system and increases the body’s vulnerability to many different infections, as well as the development of certain cancers.
HIV is a viral infection that is primarily transmitted by sexual contact or sharing needles, or from an infected pregnant woman to her newborn.
Negative antibody tests do not rule out recent infection. Most people who are infected will have a positive HIV antibody test within 12 weeks of exposure.
Although there are no specific symptoms or signs that confirm HIV infection, many people will develop a nonspecific illness two to four weeks after they have been infected.
This initial illness may be characterized by fever, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle and joint pains, headache, sore throat, and/or painful lymph nodes.
On average, people are ill for up to two weeks with the initial illness. In rare cases, the initial illness has occurred up to 10 months after infection.
It is also possible to become infected with the HIV virus without having recognized the initial illness.
The average time from infection to the development of symptoms related to immunosuppression (decreased functioning of the immune system) is 10 years.
Serious complications include unusual infections or cancers, weight loss, intellectual deterioration (dementia), and death. When the symptoms of HIV are severe, the disease is referred to as the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
Numerous treatment options now available for HIV-infected individuals allow many patients to control their infection and delay the progression of their disease to AIDS.
Symptoms Women Should Look For
Women should also be aware of potential STD symptoms so that they can seek medical advice if necessary. Some of the most common symptoms are described below.
Changes in Urination
Any pain or burning sensation during urination, the need to pee more frequently, or the presence of blood in the urine can indicate an STD.
Abnormal Vaginal Discharge
The look and consistency of vaginal discharge changes continually through a woman’s cycle, and most women know that a thick, white cottage cheese discharge is a sign of a yeast infection.
Fewer women are aware that yellow or green discharge might indicate gonorrhea or trichomoniasis.
Itching in the Vaginal Area
Itching is a non-specific symptom that may or may not be related to a STD. Sex-related causes for vaginal itching may include an allergic reaction to a latex condom, a yeast infection, pubic lice and/or scabies, genital warts, as well as the early phases of most bacterial and viral STDs..
Pain During Sex
This is an often-overlooked symptom but abdominal or pelvic pain can be a sign of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), most commonly caused by an advanced stage of infection with chlamydia or gonorrhea.
Abnormal bleeding is another possible sign of PID or other reproductive problems arising from an STD.
Rashes or Sores
Sores or tiny pimples around the mouth or vagina can indicate herpes, HPV, or even syphilis.
There is no foolproof method to protect against STDs other than through abstinence.
By being aware of changes in one’s body and by practicing safe sex, women can protect themselves and their partners, making the transmission of an infection far less likely.