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Exposure to Sexually Transmitted Infections


Topic Overview

Aside from colds and the flu, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are some of the most widespread infections both in the United States and the world. STIs affect both men and women, and almost half of all STIs occur in people younger than 25 years old. Exposure to an STI can occur any time you have sexual contact with anyone that involves the genitalsClick here to see an illustration., the mouth (oral), or the rectum (anal). Exposure is more likely if you have more than one sex partner or do not use condoms. Some STIs can be passed by nonsexual contact, such as by sharing needles or during the delivery of a baby or during breast-feeding. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are also called sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

STIs are a worldwide public health concern because there is more opportunity for STIs to be spread as more people travel and engage in sexual activities. Some STIs have been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers and infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Pregnant women can spread STIs to their babies. Many people may not have symptoms of an STI but are still able to spread an infection. STI testing can help find problems early on so that treatment can begin if needed. It is important to practice safer sex with all partners, especially if you or they have high-risk sexual behaviors. See the Prevention section of this topic.

If you think you may have symptoms of an STI:

  • Do not have sexual contact or activity while waiting for your appointment. This will prevent the spread of the infection.
  • Women should not douche. Douching changes the normal balance of bacteria in the vagina. Douching may flush an infection up into your uterus or fallopian tubes and cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).

Common sexually transmitted infections

There are at least 20 different STIs. They can be caused by viruses, bacteria, and protozoa. Some of the most common STIs in the U.S. are:

Bacterial STIs can be treated and cured, but STIs caused by viruses usually cannot be cured. You can get a bacterial STI over and over again, even if it is one that you were treated for and cured of in the past.

Sexually active teens and young adults

Sexually active teenagers and young adults are at high risk for STIs because they have biological changes during the teen years that increase their risk for getting an STI and they may be more likely to:

Studies show:

  • Sexually active teens and young adults:
    • Ages 15 to 24 years old get almost half of all new STIs each year.
    • Have the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea.
    • Syphilis rates have increased the most in people ages 15 to 24.
  • About 1 out of 5 women and 1 out of 9 men get genital herpes, and it is more common in women than in men.
  • New HIV infections have increased in people ages 13 to 29.

It is important to seek treatment if you think you may have an STI or have been exposed to an STI. Most health departments, family planning clinics, and STI clinics provide confidential services for the diagnosis and treatment of STIs. Early treatment can cure a bacterial STI and prevent complications.

If you are a parent of a teenager, there are many resources available, such as your health professional or family planning clinics, to help you talk with your teen about safer sex, preventing STIs, and being evaluated and treated for STIs.

Risks specific to women with sexually transmitted infections

In women, STIs can cause a serious infection of the uterus and fallopian tubes (reproductive organsClick here to see an illustration.) called pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID may cause scar tissue that blocks the fallopian tubes, leading to infertility, ectopic pregnancy, pelvic abscess, or chronic pelvic pain.

STIs in pregnant women may cause problems such as:

  • Miscarriage.
  • Low birth weight.
  • Premature delivery.
  • Infections in their newborn baby, such as pneumonia, eye infections, or nervous system problems.

Risks specific to men with sexually transmitted infections

Any child or vulnerable adult with symptoms of an STI needs to be evaluated by a health professional to determine the cause and to assess for possible sexual abuse.

If you have symptoms of an STI or have been exposed to an STI whether by oral, anal, or vaginal sexual activity, check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

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