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Four Common Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Take Away Points

Medically reviewed by L. Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on Jun 23, 2019.

Overview | Who's at Risk? | Common STDs | HPV | Chlamydia | Trichomoniasis | Gonorrhea | STD Prevention | Join the Support Group

Overview of STDs

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are common, easily spread, and spreading widely in the U.S. It’s not just HIV/AIDS. There are a wide array of highly transmittable and serious STDs. Prevention, early detection, and proper treatment are key. If you are sexually active, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about STD testing and which screening tests may be right for you.

According to the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 20 million new cases of STDs occur annually in the U.S. Plus, costs of these STDs are estimated to be over $16 billion. That’s pretty significant, not just for health care costs, but for each of us individually. It’s time to learn about some of the more common STDs to help protect ourselves and others.

Who is most at risk for STDs?

Young people ages 15 to 24 make up the largest group that contract STDs, roughly about 50 percent of all new cases. In addition, many young people do not realize they have an STD, as many infections have few if any symptoms. Of course, when you’re not aware you have a sexually transmissible disease, you are more apt to spread it through unprotected sexual contact. The consequences of untreated STDs are often worse for young women, as it can affect the ability to get pregnant and have a baby.

If you are diagnosed with an STD, and have never been tested for HIV infection, consider testing immediately and discuss this with your healthcare provider. All adults and adolescents (everyone between the ages of 13 and 64) should be tested at least once for HIV, as recommended by the CDC.

Common STDs

Chlamydia, trichomoniasis and gonorrhea are easily treated if caught early, but that’s not always the case. Read here to learn how to recognize the symptoms that may be linked with these STDs, and what action you should take to avoid - and stop spreading - your infection.

1. Human papillomavirus (HPV)

No doubt you’ve probably heard of this STD due to the controversial HPV vaccine. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the US, resulting in about 14 million new cases each year.

HPV is a virus almost everyone catches at some point or another; however; some types cause few symptoms and no medical problems, while others can lead to serious concerns like genital warts, cervical cancer and oropharyngeal cancer (cancer of the throat).

How many people have HPV? The numbers are frankly shocking: HPV leads to roughly 11,900 cases of cervical cancer each year. Before the HPV vaccine was introduced, genital warts occurred at about 360,000 cases per year. Overall, about one in 100 sexually active adults in the U.S. has genital warts.

Take away points:

  • Vaccination can protect both women and men from HPV, and the resultant cancers caused by HPV, including cervical cancer. Vaccines start in adolescence up until age 26. HPV vaccination is most effective if started before the individual has sex.
  • Recommendations endorsed by Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) and the American Cancer Society, state that adolescents who receive their first HPV dose before age 15 and the second dose at least 5 months later may be vaccinated in just two doses, instead the three as was previously recommended.
  • Symptoms may not appear until genital warts appear, which may look like small clusters of bumps in the genital area.
  • Cancers may not be caught until screening. Genital warts can be treated with locally applied medications that destroy the tissue, freezing (cryotherapy), or surgical removal.
  • If you have not been vaccinated, reduce your risk of genital HPV by using latex condoms; however, the throat may still be at risk for HPV from oral sex. Genital skin-to-skin contact may also increase risk. A monogamous (same person) relationship with a disease-free partner is the best way to prevent HPV if you are not vaccinated.
  • Women should undergo routine cervical cancer screening (Pap test) between ages 21 and 65 years of age. An HPV DNA test can identify certain HPV types on a woman’s cervix and may be used with a Pap test. Even women who are vaccinated need cervical screening. You will need to repeat your Pap test every 3 or 5 years.

See Also: HPV Support Group

2. Chlamydia

Chlamydia is the most common “reportable” STD in the U.S. Reportable STIs must be documented to the local health departments when it is diagnosed to help track trends and control future outbreaks. In 2017, over 1.7 million cases of chlamydial infections were reported to CDC. Sexually active women under 25 years of age should be screened for chlamydia, as well as women 25 years of age and older at increased risk for infection (such as women with new or multiple sex partners).

How do you get chlamydia? Chlamydia is spread via oral, anal, or vaginal sex. Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men are also at risk since chlamydia can be spread through oral and anal sex. Most people with chlamydia do not show symptoms. Symptoms of chlamydia in men include discharge from penis, burning urination, testicular pain and swelling. In women, burning urination and vaginal discharge can occur. Chlamydia can affect the rectum as well, with symptoms of rectal pain, discharge, and bleeding.

Take away points:

  • Symptoms may not always be present, so testing for chlamydia may be needed with new partners. Condom use can lower the risk for getting chlamydia.
  • Chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease. If left untreated, chlamydia can affect a woman’s reproductive system and make it difficult or impossible to get pregnant in the future.
  • If you are pregnant, you can give chlamydia to your baby during childbirth. Get tested at your first prenatal visit.
  • Chlamydia can be tested for and treated.
    • Oral doses of azithromycin (Zithromax) and doxycycline (Vibramycin) are commonly used to treat chlamydia. Ofloxacin (Floxin) and levofloxacin (Levaquin) are alternative agents.
    • Azithromycin is the easiest because it is given as a one-time dose; the other treatments require a 7 day treatment period.
    • It’s important your partner is treated, too. Your doctor may give you prescriptions for both you and your partner. Also, wait 7 days after you and your partner have been treated to have sex again.
  • The USPSTF recommends screening for chlamydia in sexually active women age 24 years and younger, in older women who are at increased risk for infection, and in pregnancy.
  • All sexually active gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) should be screened annually for chlamydia. MSM with multiple partners may need to be screened at 3- to 6-month intervals, according to CDC.

See Also: Chlamydia Infection Support Group

3. Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis (often abbreviated to “trich”) is a common sexually transmitted disease that is caused by infection with a protozoan parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. In the U.S., about 3.7 million people, women and men, have the infection. As with many STDs, people with trichomoniasis often have no symptoms. But luckily for anyone who contracts this infection, trichomoniasis is considered one of the most easily curable STDs.

Take away points:

  • About 70% of infected people do not have any signs or symptoms, so it’s often hard to know if you or your partner have the infection.
  • In those that develop symptoms, itching, redness, burning after urination, or an unusual discharge may occur in the vagina or around the vulva in women and in the penis for men. Symptoms may develop within one to four weeks, or may not develop until later. Sex can be uncomfortable.
  • Trichomoniasis can increase the risk of spreading other STDs, such as HIV. Pregnant women are at risk for preterm or low-weight babies.
  • An examination and lab work by your doctor can diagnose trichomoniasis.
  • Treatment for trichomoniasis is easy and straightforward.
    • A single oral dose of antibiotic, either metronidazole (Flagyl) or tinidazole (Tindamax), is typically prescribed.
    • Metronidazole may be an option for pregnant women or women with HIV, but a 7-day course is often used.
    • Avoid consumption of alcohol for 24 hours after metronidazole and for 72 hours after tinidazole to help reduce side effects.
    • Treatment is given whether symptoms are present or not if trichomoniasis is detected.
    • Partners should also be treated. Wait 7 days after you and your partner have been treated to have sex again.
  • Trichomoniasis screening should be conducted at least annually for all HIV-infected women.

See Also: Trichomoniasis Support Group

4. Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is the third most common STD in the U.S., per 2017 statistics It commonly occurs in younger people between the ages of 15 and 24. In 2017, over 555,000 cases of gonorrhea were reported to the CDC.

While gonorrhea can be treated successfully, delay in treatment can result in serious medical complications. Not only does untreated gonorrhea increase a person’s risk of getting HIV, but it can also lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women. PID can lead to infertility and increase the risk of having an ectopic pregnancy. Women may also transmit the infection to their child. Gonorrhea can also cause rectal infections.

Take away points:

  • Gonorrhea can occur in the genitals, rectum, and throat. Both women and men with gonorrhea are at risk of developing serious complications, including infertility.
  • Symptoms are not always present in people with gonorrhea. In fact, many men and most women do not usually have symptoms. Symptoms may include:
    • burning while urinating
    • discharge from the penis or vagina
    • swollen or painful testicals in men (uncommon, may occur when complicated by epididymitis)
    • bleeding between periods in women
    • rectal gonorrhea symptoms may include discharge, anal itching, soreness, bleeding, and painful bowel movements.
    • a throat infection usually has no symptoms, but can cause a sore throat.
  • Your doctor can diagnose gonorrhea using a urine sample or a swab from the throat, rectum, or genitals.
  • Due to increasing levels of drug resistance, treatment involves two medications (known as dual therapy), including a ceftriaxone injection and oral azithromycin (Zithromax). Azithromycin also has activity against chlamydia. Treatment is the same for both men and women, as well as pregnant women. Due to increasing rates of antimicrobial resistance in gonorrhea, clinicians should check the most recent recommendations. Learn more about antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea here.

  • Most, but not all, states allow prescribers to provide prescriptions for gonorrhea treatment (and other select STDs) to be delivered to a partner by the patient. This is known as expedited partner therapy (EPT). Co-treatment of the other sex partner at the time of first diagnosis is necessary to prevent reinfection. Refer the CDC guidelines to determine state guidelines, and discuss this important action with your doctor.

  • The CDC recommends yearly gonorrhea screening for all sexually active women younger than 25 years, as well as older women with risk factors such as new or multiple sex partners, or a sex partner who has a sexually transmitted infection. Screening high-risk mothers at the first prenatal visit in pregnancy is recommended, as well.
  • In sexually active gay men, bisexual men, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) screening for gonorrhea is recommended at least once a year.

See Also: Gonorrhea Support Group

What should I consider in preventing STDs?

Prevention is key with STDs, but it’s not an easy task. Think hard before engaging in sex with someone unfamiliar to you whose sexual history you do not know. Discuss the possibility of STD testing with your partner prior to an initial sexual encounter, and keep condoms within reach. Schedule an appointment with your doctor to be screened for STDs, and consider you may need to repeat these if you have multiple sexual partners. While medication treatment is easy with some STDs, others can be more involved, require surgery, or lead to fertility problems, in both women and men.

Take away points:

  • The only sure way to prevent getting or spreading an STD is to avoid sex or stay in a monogamous relationship with a disease-free partner. However, this cannot always be assured.
  • Using a latex condoms correctly each time you have sex can be useful to help prevent STDs but are not always 100% effective.
  • Speak with your partner before your first sexual encounter to determine the level of risk you are comfortable with, and consider testing for each partner prior to having sex the first time.
  • If questions arise, always consider speaking with a healthcare provider who can provide confidential advice.

Still have questions and want more answers?

Consider joining the Sexually Transmitted Diseases Support Group to discover others with similar conditions and related medications, read more up-to-date news, and share your own experience, too.

Learn More About STDs

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