Preventing Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections that are spread by sexual contact. Anyone who has vaginal, oral, or anal sex with another person is at risk for catching one or more STDs. Those caused by bacteria can usually be cured with antibiotics. Those caused by viruses cannot be cured, but your symptoms can be treated.
One of the challenges of treating STDs is that they often cause no symptoms until the infection becomes more advanced. In fact, you may not even know you are infected for quite some time. Once symptoms appear, they can range from mild irritation to severe pain. If left untreated, STDs can cause severe damage to your body, even death. Prevention and early diagnosis are the keys to fighting STDs and avoiding long term health problems.
Reducing Your Risks
The only way to absolutely keep from becoming infected with a sexually transmitted disease (STD) is to avoid sexual activities that can transmit the infection, including vaginal, oral, and anal sex. The next best preventative measure is to use a latex male or female condom every time you have sex.
There are also steps you can take to reduce your risk of contracting an STD infection:
- Know your sexual partners and limit your number of partners.
- Your partner's sexual history is as important as your own.
- The more partners you have, the greater your risk of catching an STD.
- Use a latex condom every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Condoms lubricated with spermicides have not been shown to reduce the risk of STDs any more than other condoms.
- Use a dental dam when you engage in oral sex.
- Avoid risky sex practices. Sexual acts that tear or break the skin, such as anal sex, carry a higher risk of STDs.
- Get immunized against hepatitis B and the human papillomavirus (HPV).
The Importance of Testing
Once you become sexually active, periodic testing for sexually transmitted diseases is highly recommended, especially if you have more than one sexual partner. There are several types of tests used to detect STD infections. Serum blood tests and urinalysis are used to determine if STD antibodies are present in your body, indicating an STD infection. In some cases, a genital swab is taken so that a culture can be used to determine if you have an active STD infection. Culture results generally take longer than blood test or urinalysis results.
Having an STD during pregnancy can harm your baby. If you are pregnant and you or your partner has had (or may have had) an STD, talk to your doctor. No matter your circumstances, your doctor can help determine if you should be tested for STDs and can recommend the type of test to be performed. Talking openly with your doctor about your number of sexual partners and your sexual activities will allow the doctor to determine which STDs you should be tested for and how often you should be tested. Your doctor will also be there to design a treatment plan if any of your test results come back positive.
Warning Signs of STDs
Early treatment can prevent many of the serious side effects of STDs. See your doctor immediately if you have any of the possible warning signs of STDs:
- Any open sores, red or white bumps or rashes, or liquid-filled blisters - no matter how small - in your genital area
- Redness or swelling in your genital area
- Any unusual change in the amount, color, smell, or consistency of your vaginal discharge
- Pain in your pelvis or abdomen, with or without nausea or vomiting
- Pain, soreness, irritation, or other discomfort during intercourse or bleeding after intercourse
- Fever, loss of appetite, fatigue, or swollen lymph nodes in your groin or neck
- Unusually severe menstrual cramps
- Recurring yeast infections or other infections
Types of STDs
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are viral or bacterial infections that are spread by sexual contact. There are at least 29 different STDs. Except for colds and flu, STDs are the most common contagious diseases in the United States, with millions of new cases reported each year. Although some STDs can be cured, others cannot. You can, however, control and treat the symptoms of all STDs. If you think you may have an STD, talk with your Capital Women's Care doctor so that an effective treatment plan can be developed.
Gonorrhea and Chlamydia
Gonorrhea and chlamydia are two of the most common STDs and often occur at the same time. Both gonorrhea and chlamydia are transmitted through vaginal, anal, and sometimes oral sex.
Symptoms of gonorrhea and chlamydia include:
- An abnormal vaginal discharge
- Frequent urination accompanied by a burning sensation
- Pain or pressure in the pelvic area
- Burning, itching, or redness in the vaginal area
- Pain during or bleeding after intercourse or between periods
Both gonorrhea and chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can lead to infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and chronic pelvic pain. Left untreated, gonorrhea can spread throughout your body and lead to arthritis, heart disease, and brain damage. Gonorrhea can also increase the transmission of HIV.
Antibiotics are used to treat gonorrhea and chlamydia. Your symptoms generally improve within 24 hours, but you can transmit both gonorrhea and chlamydia until you are completely free of infection. It is important that all sexual partners need to be tested and treated, even if they have no symptoms, to prevent becoming infected again. Also, having gonorrhea and chlamydia once does not prevent you from becoming infected in the future.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common STDs; more than 100 types of this virus have been identified. Some types of this virus are passed from person to person through vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Like many STDs, there are often no signs that you are infected with HPV. However, a few types of HPV cause warts to appear on the vulva, vagina, cervix, and anus. The warts are flat or raised; pink, white, or brown; and may appear as a few tiny bumps or in clusters.
Some types of HPV are linked to cancer of the cervix. HPV causes cells on or around the cervix to become abnormal and, in some cases, these cells may progress to precancerous.
While there is no cure for HPV, there is a vaccine available that protects you against the two types of HPV that cause the most cases of genital warts and cervical cancer. The vaccine triggers a woman's immune system to fight off these viruses if she is exposed to them. Genital warts can also be destroyed or removed through freezing, surgery, medication injection, or the application of topical creams.
There is no cure for HPV, so take steps to prevent yourself from becoming infected:
- Limit your sexual partners; the more partners you have, the greater your risk of infection.
- Use condoms to reduce your risk of infection when you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex.
Genital warts can reoccur because they are caused by a virus; therefore, it is important that both partners are treated. It is also important to use a condom at all times during intercourse to reduce the risk of reoccurrence.
Syphilis is a bacterial STD that is potentially life threatening. In addition to being transmitted though vaginal, oral, and anal sex, syphilis can also be transmitted through contact with syphilis sores on an infected person.
Most people have no early symptoms of syphilis. The first sign of this STD may be a painless, smooth sore at the site of the infection. The sores are typically small, raised, and smooth and often heal on their own. The second stage of the infection usually begins two to six weeks after your sores heal. Symptoms may include fever, headache, aching joints, and a skin rash. After this stage, you may go through another period in which there are no symptoms.
Syphilis is passed from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore. Sores often occur on the genitals or in the vagina, anus, or rectum. Sores also can occur on the lips and mouth.
Syphilis is easily treated with penicillin in its initial stages. If syphilis isn't treated, it can spread throughout your body, eventually causing nerve and brain damage, blindness, heart abnormalities, and even death. Without treatment, your symptoms may go away, but the disease will remain. Years later, it will return in full force. Therefore, it is important that you are tested periodically to ensure that the infection has been totally cleared from your body.
Genital herpes is a viral infection that causes sores on or around the genitals. The sores appear as red spots, bumps, or blisters that can last from a few days to a few weeks. The sores go away by themselves, but the virus remains in your body. The sores can come back at any time, usually in the same place they first occurred.
Herpes is highly contagious and can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact with the affected area, even when there are no visible signs of the infection. The disease is even more contagious when sores are visible. Therefore, completely avoid vaginal, oral, or anal sex when you or your partner has any symptoms of herpes.
Treatment can help heal the sores, but it cannot kill the herpes virus. Once you have herpes, you can transmit the disease to others without knowing it. Therefore, always use a condom and/or dental dam during sex.
Hepatitis B and C
Hepatitis is a serious infection of the liver caused by a virus. Two types of hepatitis, B and C, can be sexually transmitted through body fluids, including blood, semen and vaginal fluids. Some people are carriers of the virus and, even though they show no symptoms, they can transmit the virus to other people. If symptoms are present, they can include:
- Loss of appetite
- Abdominal pain
- Dark urine
A vaccine is available to prevent infection with hepatitis B; however, there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C infection. Many people infected with hepatitis recover completely, though some develop chronic liver infections, which can lead to long-term health problems.
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The rate of HIV infection is increasing most rapidly among women who have sex with men.
HIV can be transmitted through:
- Vaginal, anal, and in some cases oral sexual contact
- Sharing needles with an infected person
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding
Once HIV is in your blood, it invades and kills cells of your immune system, your body's natural defense against disease. Once infected, you may have no symptoms for many years, yet HIV continues to weaken your immune system. Eventually the virus develops into AIDS, a condition in which your immune system is so weakened that other life-threatening conditions, such as infections or cancer, can occur.
Although there is no cure for HIV or AIDS, there have been recent advances in medications that can slow the disease in most people. It is important to be tested any time you take part in sexual activity you consider to be risky.