Definition of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)

Infections that spread from one person to another during sexual activity, causing illness or damage to the body. The pathogens that cause STDs may be bacteria, viruses, or parasites. STDs, also called sexually transmitted infections (STIs), are significant concerns worldwide, diminishing overall health and quality of life.

STDs infect tens of millions of people in the United States and hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.

STDCauseSymptomsTreatment and Outlook
Chlamydiabacteria: Chlamydia trachomatisoften no symptoms; men may have discharge from PENIS and burning with urination; women may have vaginal dischargetreatable and curable with antibiotic medications
Genital herpesvirus: herpes simplex 2 (hsv-2)burning, itching, chancrelike sores; vaginal discharge in women; burning with urination in mennot curable but symptom relief with antiviral medications
Gonorrheabacteria: Neisseria gonorrhoeaeoften no symptoms; burning with urination and discharge from the penis in men; vaginal discharge in womentreatable and curable with antibiotic medications though some strains are resistant
Hepatitis bvirus: hepatitis B virus (HBV)jaundice, fever, nausea, vomiting, swollen and tender liverpreventable with hepatitis b vaccine postexposure prophylaxis
Hepatitis Cvirus: hepatitis C virus (HCV)jaundice, fever, nausea, vomiting, swollen and tender liverpostexposure prophylaxis
Hiv/aidsvirus: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)flulike symptoms when infection occurs; typically no symptoms until AIDS emergesnot curable and ultimately fatal; antiretroviral drugs can keep the virus in check for delay of disease manifestation and remission of symptoms
Human papillomavirus (hpv)virus: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)often no symptoms; may cause genital wartsnot curable though infection often runs its course in several years; various methods to remove warts; some strains associated with cervical canceR
Nongonorrheal urethritisbacteria: variousburning with urination; discharge from the penis in mentreatable and curable with antibiotic medications
Syphilisbacteria: Treponema pallidumpainless chancre that may be unnoticeable; skin rash; fever; late stage symptoms often systemictreatable and curable with antibiotic medications
Trichomoniasisprotozoa: Trichomonas vaginalisfoul-smelling, discolored discharge; painful urination in men; vaginal or vulvar itching or burning in womentreatable and curable with metronidazole

Symptomsand Treatment

STDs may not have symptoms though the person continues to be infectious (capable of passing the STD to sex partners). Often a person has more than one STD at the same time, a circumstance called co-infection. It is possible for reinfection with the same STD to occur after treatment.

Antibiotic medications are the mainstay of treatment for bacterial STDs. Antiviral medications may alleviate symptoms in viral STDs such as genital herpes and lessen the risk for transmitting the virus to others, though the virus often remains in the body and symptoms recur.

Though all STDs are treatable, many are not curable. Some, such as hepatitis b and human papillomavirus (hpv), are known causes of cancer (liver cancer and cervical cancer, respectively). Hepatitis C may be fatal and at present hiv/aids is always fatal, though treatment and supportive lifestyle measures can manage both conditions for years to decades.

STDs are a leading cause of pelvic inflammatory disease (pid) in women, a serious infection that can result in infertility by causing scarring and occlusion (blockage) of the fallopian tubes and sometimes the cervix.

Oral contraceptives (birth control pills), intrauterine devices (IUDs), cervical diaphragms, spermicides, vasectomytubal ligation, and hysterectomy, though effective methods of contraception, do not prevent infection with sexually transmitted diseases (stds).

Abstinence (no sexual partners) is the most effective means to prevent infection with STDs. Among people who are sexually active, key measures to reduce the risk for STD infection are

  • Long-term, mutual monogamy (one exclusive sex partner)
  • Male latex condom use with every sexual act (vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, oral sex, partner masturbation)

The effectiveness of these measures varies for the specific STD. Latex condoms are highly effective for preventing gonorrhea and HPV, for example, though may be less effective for protecting against genital herpes and hiv/aids.

The female condom is another barrier method of contraception that provides some, but more limited, protection from STD infection compared to the male condom. Unprotected contact with bodily fluids (pre-ejaculate or vaginal secretions), such as may occur during heavy petting and foreplay, carries the same risk for STD infection as does actual intercourse.

Infections not typically characterized as STDs, such as tuberculosis, may also pass between people during sexual activity. Conversely, some infections characteristically transmitted through sexual contact may also pass via other means such as shared needles among intravenous DRUG users (notably hiv/aids and hepatitis). An infant may acquire gonorrhea, chlamydia, and genital herpes during childbirth (passage through the vagina). An infant may also acquire congenital herpes without passing through the birth canal if the mother first becomes infected when she is pregnant.

Because many STDs are highly contagious and prompt treatment can minimize their spread as well as prevent long-term health complications for infected individuals, health experts strongly encourage diagnostic testing and treatment for all sexual partners of everyone who acquires an STD. In the United States, community health centers and public health services provide low-cost or free STD testing and treatment. Private doctors and other health-care providers also diagnose and treat STDs.


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