Guide to STDs and STIs: Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea, HIV, Syphilis, Herpes, And more...
Almost everyone has experienced or might experience a sexually transmitted infection at least once in their life. It is nothing to be embarrassed about. What is important is to seek medical help and treatment on time and to express responsible behavior. And this responsibility starts with learning the major facts about sexual health and STI prevention. Keep on reading, and you will find out how you can catch STDs, how you can miss them, and how to beat them if possible.
What Is an STD/STI?
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are two phrases that generally denote one and the same group of health problems that a person passes to another through various types of sexual contact. Depending on the type of STI, transmission through blood is also possible, as well as from mothers to children during pregnancy or childbirth.
There has been an increase in the usage of the term STIs instead of STDs. The reason for that lies in the fact that, unlike a disease, an infection does not imply the occurrence of necessarily visible symptoms.
Some of the most common STIs lack any obvious signs, or they only cause mild symptoms, which can pass almost unnoticed. Thus, we can say that a sexually transmitted virus or bacteria results in an infection, which may or may not culminate in a disease. Note that for the purposes of this article, we regard the terms STDs and STIs as synonymous.
Over 30 bacteria, viruses, and parasites can be transmitted during sexual intercourse, eight of which cause the most common STIs. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis are curable. Herpes, hepatitis B, HIV, and HPV are incurable.
If treated well and on time, some STIs can go away for good. However, if a person goes on having unprotected sex and exhibiting other risky patterns of behavior, the infection might recur. As for incurable diseases, right and timely treatment is essential so that they do not produce the fatal outcome.
How Common Are STIs and STDs?
Sexually transmitted infections spread extremely easily. Everyone can get them, no matter their age, sex, sexual orientation, race, or other individual characteristics. Due to that, it is of utmost importance to stick to the existing advice on prevention.
Yet, social and economic backgrounds are significant factors. For instance, poverty may have a negative impact on the purchasing power of contraceptives. It can also restrict access to high-quality healthcare in regions where it is limited.
Not talking about STIs or avoiding visits to doctors, usually in prejudiced societies, may result in the person’s ignorance about being infected. That only contributes to the spread of the disease.
Besides, substance abuse can alter the consumer’s behavior and influence the decision to practice unprotected sex and other risky activities.
STIs in Numbers
- Globally speaking, over a million people get an STI every day.
- Every year, 376 million people get chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis.
- Over 500 million people were reported to have genital herpes in 2016.
- HPV affected more than 290 million women in 2016.
- There were 240 million people living with chronic hepatitis B in 2016.
- The number of HIV-infected people in 2018 was 37.9 million.
- An estimated 20 million U.S. citizens get STIs every year, half of which are young people aged 15–24.
When it comes to the U.S., the most common sexually transmitted infections as of 2017 were HPV (79 million cases), chlamydia (1.7 million cases), and gonorrhea (half a million cases).
Chlamydia is an infection caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. One can catch it by having unprotected vaginal, anal, and oral sex with someone who has already gotten it. One can also get it by sharing sex toys that have not been cleaned or protected with a new condom each time they are used. Moreover, it is spread when infected semen or vaginal fluids find their way into another person’s eye. Finally, chlamydia can be transmitted to a child during pregnancy and childbirth.
At first, a great many people do not even know they have chlamydia since symptoms can often be silent. Research has shown that 50% of men and 70–80% of women with chlamydia do not suffer any symptoms even for weeks after having sex with an infected partner. Regardless of the appearance of signs, the bacteria can damage one’s reproductive system.
Symptoms that women may experience are:
- Unusual discharge from the vagina.
- A burning sensation when urinating.
- Abdominal pain.
Common symptoms in men are:
- Unusual discharge from the penis.
- A burning sensation when urinating.
- Swelling or pain in testicles.
Symptoms can sometimes occur in the rectal area as a consequence of receptive anal sex or spread from other infected areas. They usually include:
- Unusual discharge
- Rectal pain.
One can easily check if they have chlamydia through laboratory tests. These include urine and swab tests. In some countries, individuals can buy chlamydia testing kits to check on their own if they have gotten the infection.
Chlamydia is curable. It is usually treated with antibiotics. Sex is not recommended during the treatment. If left untreated, it may lead to more serious issues, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, inflammation of the testicles, and infertility. Unfortunately, repeat infection is possible.
Colloquially known as the clap, gonorrhea is an STI caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae. One can transmit it through vaginal, anal, or oral sexual contact. Gonorrhea can survive in the vagina, penis, rectum, mouth, and eye. A pregnant woman can also pass it on to the baby.
Approximately one out of ten men with gonorrhea does not experience any symptoms. Neither do 50% of infected women. Generally, the symptoms occur two to ten days following the initial infection. However, in some cases, they can appear after up to 30 days.
Common symptoms in women are:
- A burning sensation while urinating.
- An increase in vaginal discharge.
- Bleeding between periods.
Signs of this infection in men are:
- A burning sensation while urinating.
- A green, yellow, or white discharge from the penis.
- Pain or swelling in testicles.
In the case of rectal gonorrhea, the usual symptoms include:
- Anal itch.
- Painful bowel movements.
Other possible symptoms can occur in the throat, as a result of oral sex, and the eye. For example, swollen glands, a burning sensation in the throat, and conjunctivitis (pink eye) may occur as a result of this sexually transmitted infection.
The most common way of checking if someone has gonorrhea is by testing a sample of discharge taken with a swab. Urine tests are also available, especially for men.
The treatment normally involves one antibiotic injection or tablet. But this is not always the case. It is becoming more difficult to treat gonorrhea due to increased drug resistance of those bacteria. A person who becomes clear of the infection can catch it again later in case of unprotected sexual contact with an infected partner. Unless it is treated, it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, inflammation of the prostate gland, urethra, or tubes attached to the testicles.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks the cells of the immune system. By damaging and destroying them, HIV lowers the strength of the system to fight other infections.
This virus can get into blood, semen, pre-seminal fluids, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, and breast milk. It cannot survive outside the body for long. The virus is transmitted if the previously mentioned fluids are directly injected into the other person’s bloodstream or through contact with damaged tissue or a mucous membrane. The vagina, penis, rectum, and mouth have that membrane.
The most common ways of HIV transmission are:
- Unprotected vaginal and anal sex, i.e., without a condom.
- Sharing needles, syringes, and similar injecting equipment.
- From mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.
It is less likely to catch HIV through oral sex. Yet, it is possible, especially in the case of bleeding gums, oral ulcers, sores in the mouth, genital sores, and oral contact with menstrual blood.
The majority of infected people experience flu-like symptoms two to six weeks after getting HIV. This stage is known as acute HIV infection. In the second stage, clinical latency, there may not be any symptoms for a long time. HIV will continue attacking the immune system though. If the person does not undergo the right treatment, they might progress to AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) stage when the immune system is severely damaged.
Despite being incurable, HIV is treatable. The first 72 hours following the possible exposure to the virus are crucial. During that time, the patient can receive post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which may stop the infection. To check if someone is HIV positive, blood sample tests are necessary no earlier than six to eight weeks after the exposure. Early and timely treatment can reduce the risk of AIDS.
The bacterium Treponema pallidum causes syphilis. It is spread through direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Sores appear on the penis, in the vagina, other genital or rectal areas, or in the mouth. Sharing sex toys with someone who is infected can also be the way of transmitting it. An infected mother can also pass it on to her unborn child during pregnancy.
There are four stages of syphilis. All of them manifest different symptoms. They consist of:
- Primary Stage — when sores occur in the genital area, around the anus, in the rectum, and in or around the mouth. They are usually round, firm, and painless.
- Secondary Stage — when rashes, swollen lymph nodes, and flu-like symptoms occur.
- Latent Stage — when there are no signs.
- Tertiary Stage — when serious problems with the heart, brain, and other organs arise.
These stages can vary as it is also possible that one does not have such symptoms or has mild signs. Occasionally, people confuse those sores with pimples and the rash with some light problem, so they neglect them and do not pay enough attention.
Children who have received syphilis before birth may have misshapen bones, anemia, jaundice, enlarged liver, blindness, deafness, meningitis, rashes, problems with nerves, etc.
The most common way to determine if the person has syphilis is through blood sample tests. Some laboratories may offer sore fluid sample tests as well.
It is extremely important to seek medical help. Syphilis can be cured with a single injection of antibiotics if spotted during the first year. If recognized later, it may take longer to treat it with antibiotics. If left untreated, it may cause serious health issues as a characteristic of the tertiary stage. It can recur later during another sexual intercourse with a syphilis-infected partner.
Two viruses cause herpes. They are called herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Depending on the affected area, there are also two types of infections — oral and genital. Although genital herpes is typical for HSV-2, it can also be caused by HSV-1. The opposite counts for oral herpes.
This STD is very contagious and is spread through contact with the virus in herpes sores, saliva, genital secretions, and the skin in orally or genitally affected areas. The infected person does not need to have visible marks since the virus will be passed on anyway.
The most common symptoms are cold sores on the lips or watery skin on or around the genitals and anus. They generally heal in a couple of weeks. Their appearance is called the outbreak, and the first one is usually the most painful.
Less frequent signs of herpes may be:
- Unusual discharge from the vagina.
- Itching and burning in the genitals.
- Pain during urination.
Nevertheless, most people do not experience any symptoms and are unaware of having herpes. What is more, many people catch it in a non-sexual manner during childhood.
This STI is recognized easily when symptoms are visible. There are also sore fluid sample tests and blood tests that can determine the type of the virus. They cannot say anything about how long the virus has lived in the body.
Herpes is not a curable disease. A person can manage it with certain medicines and creams which stop or shorten outbreaks.
Outbreaks recur mainly due to exposure to ultraviolet light and friction of the genital area.
During the outbreak of genital herpes, it is not recommended to wear tight clothes, put ice on the sores, touch them except when applying the cream, and have sex.
Two of the most frequent sexually transmitted infections can be prevented by vaccination. They are HPV and hepatitis B.
Unless they have been vaccinated, one can catch human papillomavirus (HPV) during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. In some cases, the infected person may not have any symptoms. More serious HPV infections can cause genital warts or cancer, which are often the only signs of the virus. There is no cure, but doctors can manage HPV with certain medications.
Hepatitis B is transmitted through contact with semen, vaginal fluids, and blood. This virus creates an infection in the liver, which can cause serious problems. It is incurable, but preventive vaccines exist. Even though hepatitis may take various forms, such as A, B, or C, the B type is most commonly spread through sexual contact. One can also pass it on by sharing a needle with an infected person.
Viruses and bacteria are not the only causes of STDs. Parasites can also be spread during various kinds of sexual activity. The most common are scabies, pubic lice, and trichomoniasis.
You can recognize scabies infection by intense itching, rashes, and curly lines on the skin. You should treat them with creams or pills. They are uncomfortable but not very dangerous.
Pubic lice or crabs are small parasites that live on pubic hairs and skin. They feed on blood. Some usual symptoms are uncomfortable itching, the appearance of tiny bugs in pubic hair, and brownish spots caused by bites. There are many gels, shampoos, liquids, and foams to treat pubic lice.
Trichomoniasis or trich is a parasite that spreads through sexual fluids during sexual intercourse. Symptoms might not occur. But if they appear, they manifest as itching or irritation of the genitals, discharge, and painful or frequent urination. This STI is cured easily.
How You Catch STDs
As we have seen, there are three main causes of sexually transmitted infections or diseases. They are bacteria, viruses, and parasites.
Their name suggests that you can easily catch any of them just by having sex. In most cases, unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sexual activity is the reason. Any sexual contact without a condom or dental dam is considered to be unprotected.
Ejaculation does not always have to occur so that an STD spreads from one person to another. Depending on the type, bacteria, viruses, and parasites can live in semen, pre-seminal fluids, vaginal fluids, saliva, blood, anus, rectum, sores, blisters, skin, and hairs.
Moreover, if an infected person uses sex toys and shares them with you without sanitizing and washing them or covering them with a new condom, you can easily catch an STD.
Additionally, changing sexual partners frequently increases the risk of STI acquisition. Unfortunately, if your partner has had sexual activities with numerous people recently, they can pass the disease on to you.
Additionally, if you share a needle or any injecting equipment with an infected person, an STD can pass on to your organism. This may happen when sharing drugs that need to be injected. A doctor or a nurse can accidentally stick on a contaminated needle and get an STD as well.
STI symptoms may or may not occur. They may or may not be clearly visible. One thing is certain — once infected, you have to treat the disease under medical supervision.
How to Avoid STDs
First of all, you have to educate yourself on sexual health, including sexually transmitted disease control and prevention. We will now focus on the most common and useful advice.
- Use Contraceptives. Condoms are the safest STI prevention means, which can stop most infections from reaching your mucous membrane. This membrane lies in the vagina, urethral opening, anus, mouth, eyes, ears, and nose. Dental dams, which you spread over the vagina or anus during oral sex, are useful too. Contraceptives are not very expensive, and they come in different sizes and levels of thickness, various patterns, and tastes.
- Do Not Rely On Condoms Completely. Sometimes, they can break. And in some cases of infections that affect the skin and pubic hairs, they do not help.
- Get Tested. That way, you and your partner will be sure and freely go on to start sexual intercourse.
- Find a Partner You Can Trust. If they do not lie about their sexual life and health, then you do not have to worry a lot. Yet, you should still use condoms.
- Abstain From Sex. The most effective way to avoid STIs is to stop having sexual activities with other people.
- Get Vaccinated. Vaccines can prevent you from getting HPV and hepatitis B.
- Do Not Consume Drugs and Too Much Alcohol. First, drugs and alcohol may alter your way of thinking, and you can easily accept to engage in unprotected sex. Second, injecting drugs with a needle used by someone else puts you at risk of some infections.
What to Do If You Think You Have an STD
Here are some practical steps you can take if you think you might have caught an STD.
- Seek Medical Help. See your GP; go to specialized STI clinics or centers for disease control and STI prevention. They will provide you with the most reliable information and if necessary, refer you to a specialist or laboratory technician. Some countries offer anonymous and free tests which can determine whether you have an STI.
- Do Not Wait For Symptoms to Occur. They might not appear at all. Although for some diseases, such as HIV, you have to wait six to eight weeks to get tested, you ought to report a potentially risky activity to a doctor. In some cases, the first couple of days or even hours are crucial for treatment.
- Avoid All Sexual Activity During That Period.
- Inform every person with whom you have had sex recently or with whom you have shared a needle. Talk to them honestly. Both or all of you should get tested and treated if necessary so that the infection does not come back and forth.
- Provided that you have a curable STI, wait for some time and do the test again to make sure you are completely clear.
Living With STDs
As soon as your doctor and the test have determined that you have a sexually transmitted disease, you ought to get the treatment immediately. If left untreated, STIs may cause other health issues with fatal consequences.
When it comes to curable infections, the treatment does not usually last for a long time. Unfortunately, most of them can recur if one keeps on having unprotected sex or engages in activities with a high risk of STI transmission.
However, incurable STDs require regular medical check-ups and sticking to the doctor’s advice and recommendations. Yet, the right treatment can manage them and prevent them from progressing to more severe stages.
Nowadays, STIs are very frequent. You should not feel embarrassed because the infection is not a reflection of you and your personality. You can talk to your family members and friends and ask them for support.
If you have a partner, it is fair to inform them about your medical issue. Moreover, in some countries, it is punishable by law to hide from your partner that you have an STD.
Should you feel lonely, sad, fed up, or depressed, you can always seek professional help from your psychologist, doctor, or an STI prevention and control counselor. They will gladly assist you because it is their job to do so.