Save Your Blushes: The FAQ's On STDs
Medically reviewed by Carmen Fookes, BPharm. Last updated on Feb 10, 2022.
Know The Myths From The Facts About STDs
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) - also known as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) - are common. They affect people of all ages but young adults are particularly vulnerable. In fact, almost 10 million of the 20 million STDs that occur each year in the U.S. are reported in people less than 25 years of age.
There are a lot of myths surrounding STDs...like you can catch them off toilet seats or you can't catch them through kissing or just fooling around. Both are wrong. For the sake of your health, read on for some truths about STDs.
Sharing More Than Just Love
STDs can be spread through any type of sex - vaginal, oral, or anal. Some can be spread through any contact with the penis, mouth, vagina or anus - this includes kissing and genital touching. Certain STDs, for example HIV and hepatitis B, can also be spread through sharing needles or through contact with blood. Even some viruses such as Zika - although not technically an STD - can be spread through semen.
The take-home message is that you don't even to have intercourse to catch an STD. And because most STDs are symptomless, many people are unaware they have an STD.
Rates of STDs are Rising in Older Adults
Almost half of all STDs occur in young people under the age of 25. This is because younger people are more likely to have multiple partners and less likely to wear a condom.
However, rates in older adults are rising. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of cases of gonorrhea rose 164% among Americans age 55 and older between 2014 and 2018, while cases of syphilis rose 120%, and cases of chlamydia rose by 86%.
The ONLY sure way to avoid STDs is not to have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Condoms reduce the risk of getting an STD; they do not guarantee 100% protection.
Most STDs don't cause any symptoms. The only way to know if you definitely have an STD is to get tested. If you think you're at risk for STDs, get tested yearly. Rest assured, almost every STD is easily treated.
Common STDs: Know the What, the Why's, and the How's
There are more than 20 different types of STDs. Some of the more common ones include chlamydia, genital herpes, genital warts, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV. Over the next few slides, we'll discuss these six common STDs, and talk about:
- What Causes this particular STD
- Symptoms (if any) of the condition
- Why should you worry about these STDs?
Chlamydia: Notorious As The Silent STD
Causes: Chlamydia is one of the most common STDs and is caused by a bacteria called Chlamydia trachomatis.
Symptoms: Chlamydia is often called the "Silent" STD because many people have no idea they have the infection until they try to start a family and tests reveal their fertility or sterility problems stem from untreated chlamydia. Some women may experience an abnormal vaginal discharge, bleeding or abdominal pain.
Why Worry? Chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, sterility, ectopic pregnancy, and long-term pelvic pain.
Herpes: The Cold Sore Down There
Causes: Genital herpes is most commonly caused by the herpes simplex type 2 virus. However, the herpes simplex type 1 virus - the virus responsible for cold sores - is becoming more prevalent as a cause.
Symptoms: Only 1 in 4 people have symptoms like painful, fluid-filled sores around the genitals, rectum, or mouth. These usually resolve on their own but treatments may speed recovery.
Why Worry? Periodic outbreaks of herpes can occur, but become less frequent over time. Herpes is easily spread while sores are present, so avoid sex during this time.
Genital Warts: One of The Signs Of HPV
Causes: 90% of anogenital (relating to the anus and genitals) warts are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), specifically HPV types 6 or 11. More than 40 types of HPV exist.
Symptoms: In most people, infection with HPV clears up by itself without causing any health problems. However, some people develop warts - small fleshy growths or bumps that may occur singly or in clusters and look like a cauliflower.
Why Worry? Infection with HPV is linked with cervical cancer and other cancers of the genital area and throat, although the HPV viruses that cause genital warts are not the same as those that cause cancer.
Prevention: The HPV vaccine, Gardasil 9, protects against HPV types 6 and 11, as well as HPV types 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.
Gonorrhea. Nothing To Clap About
Causes: Gonorrhea (also known as "The Clap") is caused by a type of bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhea .
Symptoms: Most men and women with gonorrhea do not have any symptoms at all. Some men may have a discharge from the penis, a burning sensation when urinating, or painful testicles. Symptoms in women may be mistaken for a bladder infection.
Why Worry? Untreated gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, ectopic pregnancy, long-term pelvic pain and may lead to sterility in men.
Syphilis: The Great Pretender
Cause: Syphilis is caused by a bacteria called Treponema pallidium.
Symptoms: Syphilis is known as "The Great Pretender" as its symptoms mimic many other diseases. Initial symptoms include a single firm, round, and painless sore - also called a chancre. If left untreated, syphilis progresses after three to six weeks. The second stage is marked by the presence of a non-itchy, widespread rash; flu-like symptoms; weight and hair loss.
Why Worry? Syphilis persists in the body for a lifetime if not treated, eventually causing organ damage, blindness, paralysis and death. Being infected with syphilis, even if you are successfully treated, will not protect you from reinfection. Having a chancre also increases your risk of acquiring HIV two-to-four fold.
Prevention Condoms - if used correctly and consistently - can reduce the chances of becoming infected with syphilis as long as the chancre is covered. Sexual abstinence or being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested for syphilis and known to be uninfected is the only sure way to prevent infection.
HIV: Having An STD Can Make You More Likely To Get HIV
Causes: HIV is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This virus is thought to have originally come from chimpanzees and has existed in the U.S. since the mid-to-late 1970s.
Symptoms: Most people infected with HIV do not have any symptoms initially. The only way to know if you have HIV is to get tested. Treatment is much more effective if started early.
Why Worry? If left untreated, the HIV virus destroys the ability of your immune system to fight infection. Once you have HIV, you have it for life, but modern treatments for HIV are very effective at keeping levels of the HIV virus low, and dying from AIDs is very uncommon these days.
Think You Have an STD? Get a Check-Up
If you suspect you have an STD, be on the safe side and get checked. Even if you don't suspect anything is wrong but are having sex, get a check-up each year. Waiting only increases the risk of an STD worsening or of spreading it to others.
Health clinics like Planned Parenthood deal with STDs regularly, so don't feel embarrassed. Many free or low-income health clinics exist across the U.S. that test for STDs and also supply free condoms.
In general, parental permission is not needed for STD testing. However, there may be certain locations where, for one reason or another, a health care provider will require parental permission or may notify a parent about testing. Laws vary from state to state, so ask your healthcare provider at your clinic.
Three More Things About STDs
You need to specifically ask your doctor to test you for STDs. These tests are not routinely done as part of a normal doctors visit.
Most types of birth control ONLY protect against pregnancy, not STDs. However, using a condom each time you have sex may lower your chance of contracting an STD.
STDs cannot survive outside the body for long so it is extremely unlikely to pick one up from a toilet seat.
You Need to Take Control to Remain STD-Free
Keeping STD free is all up to you.
- Know the facts about common STDs. To put it simply - STDs are common, easily caught, easily spread, and can affect fertility.
- Get yourself tested - know your HIV status and get tested more frequently if you are at risk for HIV or other STDs.
- Always wear a condom (or get your partner to wear a condom) each time you have sex.
Finished: Save Your Blushes - The FAQ's On STDs
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- Sexually transmitted disease? At my age? There's an upswing in cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis in the United States, and it includes older adults. Feb 2018. Harvard health Publishing. Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/sexually-transmitted-disease-at-my-age
- Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Mayo Clinic 2022. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sexually-transmitted-diseases-stds/symptoms-causes/syc-20351240
- Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/std/default.htm
- Shannon CL, Klausner JD. The growing epidemic of sexually transmitted infections in adolescents: a neglected population. Curr Opin Pediatr. 2018;30(1):137-143. doi:10.1097/MOP.0000000000000578
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