Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) Awareness Month

April is STD Awareness Month

Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Safeguarding Your Health

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) take a particularly heavy toll on young people, even with the substantial impact they have on men and women of all ages, ethnicities or backgrounds. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate those ages 15 to 24 years accounted for almost 50% of the 26 million new STDs occurring in the U.S. in 2018.

According to the Centers for Disease Control’s 2019 STD Surveillance Report, STDs in the U.S. reached an all-time high for the 6th consecutive year, with more than 2.5 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis reported that year alone.

The CDC further iterates syphilis cases and babies born with congenital syphilis continue to rise since 2010. What’s more, STDs are commonplace. According to the CDC, 1 out of 4 teenage girls has an STD and 1 in 5 people within the U.S. was infected with an STD on any given day in 2018.

Most importantly, those with STD infection may not present symptoms and unknowingly transmit the disease to their intimate partners. This leads to infection spread, especially if they (or their partner) aren’t in mutually monogamous relationships.

STDs not only harm personal sexual and reproductive health -- STDs can also harm and cause serious health consequences for intimate partners or unborn babies of infected pregnant women.  If STDs aren’t properly diagnosed, treated or managed, they can have lasting impact on the quality and longevity of you, your partner or your unborn baby’s health and life.

April is designated Sexually Transmitted Diseases Awareness Month. Your Capital Women’s Care team of women’s health professionals shares vital information on the different types of STDs, their symptoms, treatments and pertinent statistics; how to reduce risk of personal STD infection; and guidance to broach non-confrontational talks with teens and intimate partners to create open dialogues that pave the way to good sexual and reproductive health for you and your loved ones.

Types of STDs

Transmission of STDS occurs with skin to skin and intimate sexual contact (anal, oral or vaginal sex), as well as through unprotected sex. STDs are caused by differing bacteria and viruses found within body fluids like saliva, those found within the vagina and penis and rectal areas. The different types of STDs include:

  • bacterial vaginosis (BV) is a common, treatable, vaginal condition. BV can increase your chance of getting an STD. It’s the most common vaginal condition in women ages 15 to 44 years.

While its cause is unknown, BV occurs in sexually active women. BV occurs due to an imbalance of “good” and “harmful” bacteria in a vagina. Douching, not using condoms and having new or multiple sexual partners can upset the normal balance of vaginal bacteria, thus increasing BV risk.

Pregnant women with BV risk premature birth and having a low birthweight (less than 5 ½ lbs.) baby.

BV symptoms include thin white or gray vaginal discharge; pain, itching, or burning in the vagina; a strong odor, especially after sex; burning during urination; and itching around the vagina’s exterior.

BV treatment includes testing the vaginal fluid and antibiotics.

You can minimize BV risk through sexual abstinence, limiting number of sexual partners, avoiding douching and using latex condoms appropriately every time you have sex.

  • chlamydia affects both men and women and often occurs without symptoms. The most reported bacterial STD in the U.S., there were 1,808,703 cases of chlamydia reported to the CDC in 2019, making it the most common notifiable condition that year, signifying a 2.8% increase from the previous year.

During 2018–2019, rates of reported chlamydia increased among both males and females, in all U.S. regions and among all ethnicities. Rates of reported chlamydia among men increased 32.1% during 2015 to 2019.

Chlamydia can cause serious, permanent damage to a woman’s reproductive system. Untreated chlamydia can spread to your uterus and fallopian tubes, which can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID often has no symptoms, however some women may have abdominal and pelvic pain. Even if it doesn’t cause symptoms initially, PID can cause permanent damage to your reproductive system, including long-term pelvic pain, inability or difficulty becoming pregnant, and potentially deadly ectopic pregnancy.

If you’re a sexually active woman aged 25 years or younger, you should get tested for chlamydia annually. If you’re an older woman with risk factors like new or multiple sex partners, or a sex partner with an STD, you should get tested for chlamydia every year.

You can lower your chances of infection by being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who has been tested and has negative STD test results and use latex condoms correctly every time you have sex.

Pregnant women with chlamydia can pass the infection to their baby during delivery, potentially causing an eye infection or pneumonia in newborns. Having chlamydia may also increase risk of premature birth. Pregnant women should get tested for chlamydia during their initial prenatal visit.

Chlamydia symptoms in women may include abnormal vaginal discharge, abnormal bleeding between menstrual cycles and burning sensation during urination. Men may experience discharge from the penis, burning sensation during urination and pain or swelling in one or both testicles. Infection may occur in the rectum in both men and women without presentation of symptoms, or with rectal pain, discharge and bleeding.

Chlamydia can be treated and cured through lab tests and medications, although there’s possibility for recurring infection. Medications should be taken as directed with additional testing to assure infection is gone.

  • gonorrhea can cause infection in the genitals, rectum and throat of both men and women. It is very common, especially among young people ages 15 to 24 years.

There were 616,392 cases of gonorrhea reported to the CDC in 2019, making it the second most common notifiable condition in the U.S. for that year. Rates of reported gonorrhea have increased 92.0% since the historic low in 2009. During 2018–2019, the overall rate of reported gonorrhea increased 5.7%. Rates increased among both males and females in all U.S. regions and among all ethnicities.

Since 2013, the rate of reported gonorrhea has been higher among men compared to women. Among men, the rate of reported gonorrhea increased 5.9% during 2018–2019 and 60.6% during 2015–2019.

Reported gonorrhea rates among women increased 5.1% during 2018–2019 and 43.6% during 2015–2019.

Gonorrhea spreads through vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has gonorrhea.

Pregnant women with gonorrhea can give the infection to their baby during childbirth. This can cause serious health problems for your baby. If you’re pregnant, talk to your healthcare provider so you get the correct examination, testing, and treatment, as necessary. Treating gonorrhea as soon as possible will make health problems for your baby less likely.

Gonorrhea often has no symptoms, but it can cause serious health problems, even without symptoms.

Most women with gonorrhea don’t experience symptoms and if they do, they may be mild enough to be mistaken for either a bladder or vaginal infection. Symptoms that women may experience include painful or burning sensation during urination, increased vaginal discharge or vaginal bleeding between menstrual cycles.

Men with symptoms may also experience painful burning during urination, discharge from the penis or painful, swollen testicles.

Rectal infections may either cause no symptoms or cause symptoms in both men and women which may include discharge, anal itching, soreness bleeding and painful bowel movements.

See your healthcare provider if you notice symptoms. You should also see your provider if your partner has an STD or exhibits STD symptoms.

Gonorrhea may be treated, but there are increasing diagnoses of antibiotic resistant gonorrhea. Although medicine will halt gonorrhea, it won’t undo permanent damage that’s inflicted before treatment occurs.

  • genital herpes. Genital herpes is an STD caused by two types of viruses – herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2). Genital herpes is common in the U.S. In 2018, CDC estimates show there were 572,000 new genital herpes infections in the U.S. among people ages 14 to 49 years.

There is no cure for genital herpes. However, there are medicines that can prevent or shorten outbreaks. A daily anti-herpes medicine can make it less likely to pass the infection to your sexual partner(s).

Herpes infection can cause sores or breaks in the skin or lining of the mouth, vagina, and rectum. It also increases HIV infection risk, as the sores provide a pathway for HIV to enter the body. Even without visible sores, herpes increases the number of immune cells in the lining of the genitals. HIV targets immune cells for entry into the body.

HSV-1 often causes oral herpes, which can result in cold sores or fever blisters on or around the mouth. However, most people with oral herpes do not have any symptoms. Most people with oral herpes are infected during childhood or young adulthood from non-sexual contact with saliva.

Oral herpes caused by HSV-1 can spread from the mouth to the genitals through oral sex. This is the reason why some cases of genital herpes are due to HSV-1.

You can get genital herpes by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the infection. You can get herpes if you have contact with a herpes sore, saliva from a partner with an oral herpes infection, genital fluids from a partner with a genital herpes infection, skin in the oral area of a partner with oral herpes, or skin in the genital area of a partner with genital herpes.

Genital herpes can be contracted from a sex partner who doesn’t have visible sores or is unaware of their infection. It’s also possible to get genital herpes if you receive oral sex from a partner with oral herpes.

Pregnant women infected with genital herpes risk miscarriage or premature birth, and increase infecting their baby during delivery (neonatal herpes.) It’s important to avoid getting genital herpes during pregnancy. Tell your healthcare provider if you have ever had a genital herpes diagnosis or symptoms and any possible genital herpes exposure.

Some STDs are associated with HIV in the U.S. Those who get syphilis, gonorrhea, and herpes often also have HIV, or are more likely to get HIV in the future. This is because the same behaviors and circumstances that may put you at risk for getting an STD also can put you at greater risk for getting HIV. In addition, having a sore or break in the skin from an STD may allow HIV to easily transmit into your body. Sharing needles for illicit drug use also puts you at greater risk of HIV infection.

Women who are lactating should be cautious if breastfeeding, as HIV can be transmitted to nursing babies via breastmilk.

Some people have flu-like symptoms within 2 to 4 weeks after infection (called acute HIV infection). These symptoms may last for a few days or several weeks. Possible symptoms include fever, chills, rash, night sweats, muscle aches, sore throat, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes and mouth ulcers.

However, some people may not feel sick, even though they become infected.

Unprotected or risky sex, especially while using drugs or alcohol, and having multiple sex partners (especially those who are anonymous) increases HIV risk.

If you’re sexually active, get tested for STDs and HIV regularly, even if you don’t have symptoms and talk to your healthcare provider about pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, or post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, are good options for you to prevent HIV infection. If you’re HIV-positive, talk to your doctor about antiretroviral therapy (ART). Taking HIV medicine as prescribed can make viral load very low by reducing the amount of virus in blood and body fluids.

  • HPV. HPV (Human papillomavirus) is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the U.S.

Some types can cause health problems, including genital warts and including cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis, or anus. It can also cause cancer in the back of the throat (called oropharyngeal cancer). This can include the base of the tongue and tonsils. Cancer often takes years, even decades, to develop after a person gets HPV. Every year, about 19,400 women and 12,100 men experience cancers caused by HPV.

HPV vaccines can prevent some of the health effects HPV causes.

The CDC recommends HPV vaccination for all preteens (including boys and girls) at age 11 or 12 years (or can start at age 9 years) and everyone through age 26 years, if not vaccinated already.

Vaccination isn’t recommended for everyone older than age 26 years. However, some adults ages 27 to 45 years who aren’t already vaccinated may decide to get HPV vaccine after speaking with their healthcare provider about personal risk for new HPV infections and possible vaccination benefits, as HPV vaccination during this age range provides less benefit.

Most sexually active adults have already been exposed to HPV, although not necessarily to all HPV types targeted by vaccination. However, at any age, having a new sex partner is a risk factor for acquiring a new HPV infection.

Pregnant women with HPV can develop genital warts or abnormal cell changes on the cervix. Routine cervical cancer screening can help find any abnormal cell changes. Routine cervical cancer screening during pregnancy is recommended.

While there is no cure for HPV itself, there are treatments available for related health issues caused by the virus. These include genital warts, cervical precancer, and other HPV related cancers.

You can reduce your risk of contracting HPV if you get vaccinated and have regular cervical cancer screenings between ages 21 to 65 years. If you are sexually active you should use condoms appropriately each time you have sex and be in a mutually monogamous relationship. It’s important to note that HPV can infect areas not covered or protected by condoms.

  • Syphilis is a bacterial infection usually spread by sexual contact. There were 129,813 cases of syphilis reported in 2019, including 38,992 cases of primary and secondary (P&S) syphilis, the disease’s most infectious stages. Since reaching a historic low in 2000 and 2001, the rate of P&S syphilis has increased almost every year, increasing 11.2% during 2018–2019. Rates increased among both males and females, in all U.S. regions and among all ethnicities.

Rates of P&S syphilis in women have increased substantially in recent years, increasing 30% during 2018–2019 and 178.6% during 2015–2019, suggesting heterosexual syphilis epidemic continues to rapidly increase.

The disease starts as a painless sore typically on the genitals, rectum or mouth. Syphilis spreads from person to person via skin or mucous membrane contact with these sores.
After the initial infection, the syphilis bacteria can remain inactive in the body for decades before becoming active again. Early syphilis can be cured, sometimes with a single injection of penicillin. There are 4 stages to the disease. It’s most contagious during the first and second stages.

Without treatment, syphilis can severely damage the heart, brain or other organs, and can be life-threatening. Syphilis can also be passed from pregnant women to their unborn children.

Reducing STD Risks

Increased risk of STD infection occurs with skin to skin and intimate sexual contact (anal, oral or vaginal sex), as well as through unprotected sex, unsafe sexual behavior (especially in combination with drugs and/or alcohol,) sharing drug needles (regarding HIV transmission) and in the case of untreated infected pregnant women, during pregnancy and delivery.

Take a look at additional information on how you can reduce your personal STD risks.

The surest way to avoid getting an STD is to not have sexual intercourse or any other kind of intimate sexual contact. Teens who abstain from sex until older lower their chances of becoming infected significantly.

It’s important to discuss STDs with teens as well as intimate partner(s) to avoid transmission and spread, which can negatively impact the quality of reproductive and overall health of those who become infected.

Discussing STDs with Teens

It’s important to welcome open conversations with boys and girls throughout the years regarding sexual and reproductive health, even when they are young. By keeping the door open to discussion about sex and sexual health during childhood, your teens will be more likely to come to you with questions or concerns as puberty and awareness of their sexuality commence. It’s important to maintain a calm, non-judgmental demeanor during these discussions so your teens know they can trust and confide in you no matter what.

If a topic comes up for discussion that you’re uncomfortable with personally, take time to research it with your teens together. Building your teens’ trust minus any judgments or emotional reactions from you firmly establishes your relationship with your teens. Doing so paves the way for them to turn to you as they journey toward young adulthood and independence and provides them a firm foundation toward building a quality, healthy adult life.

Discussing STDs with Partner(s)

It’s important to be open and honest with your intimate partner(s) concerning your expectations of your sexual relationship so you both maintain quality reproductive health.

Mutually monogamous sexual relationships minimize risk of STD transmission and infection.

Discuss STDs with your partner, including both getting tested before initiating a sexual relationship, especially if previous sexual relationships existed.

Maintain complete honesty and stress its importance to optimize both you and your partner’s reproductive and overall health. You have the right to say no to sexual contact if mutual honesty and trust are compromised, which can lead to your sexual and overall health becoming compromised as well.

Your Capital Women’s Care team of women’s health professionals are here to answer your questions and address your concerns regarding STDs and their impact on your personal sexual and reproductive health or any women’s health issue. Our compassionate, expert doctors, nurses and women’s health support team members provide you quality, comprehensive health care and treatment so you enjoy a long, quality life.


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The providers of Capital Women's Care seek the highest quality medical and ethical standard in an environment that nurtures the spirit of caring for every woman.


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