Genital Warts (HPV)
It's not necessary to have sexual intercourse to get a sexually-transmitted disease (STD). The human papillomavirus (HPV) that causes genital warts can be transmitted by close skin-to-skin contact. Some types of HPVs cause cervical or anal cancer, and vaccines are available to protect against the most dangerous types. Other HPV types cause genital warts, which can be raised, flat, or cauliflower-shaped. HPV infection can occur in people who have no symptoms or visible warts.
Pubic Lice (Crabs)
Pubic lice are colloquially known as "crabs." This name refers to the shape of these parasites, which is different from that of body lice. Pubic lice live in pubic hair and are spread among people during close contact. Symptoms include severe itching, visible crawling lice, or eggs attached to pubic hair. Pubic lice can be treated with over-the-counter lice-killing medications.
Scabies is another disease caused by lice infestation. It is not necessarily an STD, since it can affect any area of the skin. However, it is often spread during sexual contact. Scabies causes extreme itching that is worse at night. The skin appears to have a pimple-like rash, as shown here. Prescription creams can cure the infestation.
Gonorrhea (The Clap)
Gonorrhea is an easily transmissible STD that affects both men and women. It can cause infertility in men and women when untreated. There may be no early symptoms of the infection. When symptoms develop, they can include burning during urination, vaginal or urethral discharge, and pelvic pain in women. Men may experience swelling of the testes and discharge from the penis. In some cases, the symptoms are mild and the condition is mistaken for a urinary tract infection or yeast infection.
Syphilis can be cured with antibiotics, but many people don't notice the early symptoms. It can lead to nerve damage, blindness, paralysis, and even death over time if not treated. The first sign is typically a painless sore on the genitals or anal area. It is usually round and firm. A rash can develop later on the soles of the feet, palms, or other parts of the body. Other symptoms can include enlarged lymph nodes, fever, fatigue, or hair loss. Late-stage syphilis can cause damage to many different organ systems.
Chlamydia is a very common infection transmitted by sexual contact. It can cause infertility if not treated. The symptoms may not be noticed, or they may be vague and nonspecific. Some people have no symptoms at all. When symptoms are present, they can include burning or itching of the genitals, discharge, or painful urination. Chlamydia infections can also develop in the rectum and throat.
Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1
Cold sores or "fever blisters" on the lips are a sign of herpes virus infection, usually caused by the type of herpes virus known as human herpes virus 1, or HHV-1. HHV-1 is usually not an STD, and it can be spread through kissing or household contact. It can also spread to the genitals. There is no cure for herpes infection, but medications can reduce the severity and duration of outbreaks.
Herpes Simplex Virus Type 2
In contrast to HHV-1, most genital herpes infections are caused by a different virus known as HHV-2. It is spread through direct contact and is considered to be an STD. Symptoms include painful, fluid-filled blisters and crusted sores on the genital area, buttocks, thighs, or anus. The infection can spread to the lips through oral contact. As with HHV-1, medications can reduce the severity of the condition, but there is no cure.
Hepatitis B is a virus that spreads through contact with body fluids and blood, so it can be transmitted through sexual intercourse. Infection is also possible through sharing of needles, razors, and toothbrushes. Babies can become infected at birth from an infected mother. Symptoms of hepatitis B infection include nausea, abdominal pain, and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes). Over time, scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) and liver cancer can develop. It’s possible to go for years without symptoms of the infection.
Although there is no cure, there is a vaccine to prevent hepatitis B infection.
The HIV virus (AIDS virus) weakens the body's immune system. It is spread through sexual contact, needle sharing, or from an infected mother to baby. There may be no symptoms for years, but a blood test can tell if you have been infected. With appropriate treatment, many serious illnesses can be prevented. Some people have flu-like symptoms 1 to 2 months after they become infected, like swollen lymph nodes, fever, and headaches.
There are accurate tests to identify whether or not you have been infected with the HIV virus. These can be done in the clinic or at home with the FDA-approved Home Access test kit. The test can be performed anonymously, with only a number to identify you. However, sometimes people may not test positive in the initial 6 months after infection. This time period is referred to as the "window period" in which antibodies may not have developed enough for a positive test. You can still transmit the virus to others during this time.
HIV/AIDS Treatment Options
While there is no cure for HIV, there are medications that can suppress the amount of virus multiplying inside the body. People take a combination of antiviral drugs in hopes of preventing the infection from advancing to AIDS. Additional treatments can help prevent or fight off serious infections, if the immune system has weakened.
Trichomonas is a parasitic infection that is spread during sexual contact. It affects both men and women and can be cured with medications. Most affected men have no specific symptoms, but some have minor discharge or burning with urination. Women may have a yellowish-green vaginal discharge with a prominent odor, itching of the vaginal area, or pain with sex or urination. Symptoms can develop anywhere from 5 to 28 days after contracting the infection.
Chancroid is an STD that is rarely seen in the U.S. It is more common in Africa and Asia. It causes painful lumps in the genital area that can progress to open sores. Antibiotics can cure the infection.
LGV (Lymphogranuloma Venereum)
LGV (lymphogranuloma venereum) is a type of chlamydial infection, but it is caused by a different type of chlamydia than the usual chlamydial STD. Like other chlamydial infections, it can be cured by antibiotic treatment. LGV causes open sores in the genitals, swollen lymph nodes in the groin, fever, and headache. It can also cause anal sores and rectal discharge or bleeding if the infection was acquired through anal sex.
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease
Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is not a specific STD. Rather, it is a complication that can develop following multiple different STDs, particularly gonorrhea and chlamydia. In PID, bacteria spread to the uterus and female reproductive tract. Infertility may result if the condition is not treated right away. Symptoms include fever, pelvic or low abdominal pain, pain with urination, discharge, painful intercourse, and light bleeding.
Who's at Risk for STDs?
It's estimated that half of sexually active young adults acquire an STD by age 25. While STDs are more common in teens and young adults, anyone who is sexually active is at risk. The risk is raised by having multiple sex partners. The incidence of some STDs, including LGV and syphilis, is rising in men who have sex with men.
Can Virgins Get STDs?
Many STDs can spread through any type of sexual activity. This includes skin-to-skin contact and oral sex. This means that people who have not yet had sexual intercourse can still get STDs.
Abstinence from any sexual contact is the only absolute way to prevent getting an STD. Being in a long-term, monogamous relationship also is a good way to avoid STDs. There are also steps you can take to decrease the chance of getting an STD if you are sexually active, including:
- Asking partners if they have ever had an STD
- Using condoms
- Avoiding sexual activity with a partner who has signs of an STD
- Asking partners to be tested before having sex
- Being aware of symptoms and signs of STDs
The Limits of Condoms
Condoms can prevent the spread of some STDs, but they aren't 100% effective. They are less effective at protecting against herpes, syphilis, and genital warts, since these STDs can be transmitted by contact with skin lesions that are not covered by a condom. Condoms also do not protect against crabs and scabies infestations.
How to Tell Your Partner
It's important to tell your partner as soon as possible if you believe you may have an STD. Even if you are being treated, you may still be able to spread the infection. For some STDs, it's recommended that both partners be treated at the same time. It can be difficult to share this information, so some people find that preparing a script in advance can be helpful.
STDs and Pregnancy
STDs can cause premature labor in pregnant women, and many STDs can be passed to the baby either during pregnancy or childbirth. So all pregnant women should be checked for STDs. STDs can cause numerous problems in babies, like low birth weight, stillbirth, nerve problems, blindness, serious infections, and liver problems. Treatment during pregnancy can reduce the risks of these complications and can cure many types of infections.
Can STDs Come Back?
In most cases, new exposures to STDs that you have had in the past can cause you to get the infection again. Most treatments don't protect you from developing the STD at a future time. If your partner has not been treated, you may pass the infection back and forth. Without the right precautions, you could acquire a second STD or a recurrence of the same infection.