What do you need to know?
Most of us probably prefer not talking about STDs, but it is something that everyone needs the correct information about in order to be protected. While some STDs are more serious than others, no one wants to have one. This is why protection is key to prevention. What do you need to know about STDs to be safe? How do you know if you have one? How do you treat one?
Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), also called Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) can happen to anyone. It doesn’t matter if you are heterosexual, homosexual, single or married. If you engage in any form of sexual activity (oral/vaginal/anal intercourse and genital touching), then you are vulnerable. Many STIs do not have any signs or symptoms and others have symptoms that aren’t necessarily obvious. STIs can be broken down into three main groups: bacterial (chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis), parasitic (trichomoniasis) and viral (genital herpes, human papillomavirus, hepatitis A/B/C and HIV).
Chlamydia is a bacterial infection of your genital area and can be difficult to detect because there are no or minimal symptoms. If you do have symptoms, they are often mild and start one to three weeks after exposure, which means they can easily be missed. Some of the associated with chlamydia are painful urination, lower abdominal pain, discharge from vagina or penis, pain during intercourse (women), bleeding between periods (women) and testicular pain. Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection that primarily affects your genital tract, but can also appear in your mouth, throat, eyes and anus. Symptoms include thick/cloudy/bloody discharge from the penis or vagina, pain/burning sensation when urinating, heavy menstrual bleeding or bleeding between periods, painful/swollen testicles, painful bowel movements and anal itching. Symptoms usually present within 10 days of exposure, but it can be months before symptoms occur. Syphilis is also a bacterial infection that presents with a small, painless sore (chancre) on the area of your body where the infection was transmitted, such as your genitals, rectum, tongue or lips. Typically, only one chancre appears some time between 10 days and 3 months after exposure and it usually heals without any treatment. Unfortunately, the underlying disease remains and other symptoms can appear 3 – 6 weeks after the chancre appears. Symptoms include rash marked by red or reddish-brown, penny-sized sores over any area of your body, fever, enlarged lymph nodes, fatigue, vague feeling of discomfort and soreness/aching. These symptoms will disappear on their own without any treatment within a few weeks or may reappear intermittently over the following year. This stage is known as secondary syphilis. After this stage, it is common to go through a period in which no symptoms are present and is called latent syphilis. For some people, their syphilis stays in stage. For others, it progresses to tertiary syphilis. Tertiary syphilis is often the result of people not receiving treatment during the other stages. Symptoms include lack of coordination, numbness, paralysis, blindness, dementia and, eventually, death.
Trichomoniasis is caused by a parasite and affects the urinary tract in men and the vagina in women. Men often don’t have any symptoms. If symptoms do appear, it is with 5 – 28 days of exposure and can be from mild to severe. Symptoms include clear/white/greenish/yellowish vaginal discharge, discharge from penis, strong vaginal odor, vaginal itching/irritation, penile itching/irritation, pain during intercourse and painful urination.
Genital herpes is caused by a virus that enters your body through breaks in your skin or mucous membranes. It is highly contagious, but most people don’t know that they have it because they don’t have any symptoms or the symptoms are so mild they go unnoticed. It is estimated that one in four adults in America have genital herpes and that 80% don’t even know that they have it. When symptoms do appear, the first episode is usually the worst. Some people never have another episode and others have recurrent episodes for decades. Symptoms include small red bumps, blisters or open sores in the genital, anal and nearby areas and pain/itching around the genital area, buttocks and inner thighs. The sores can make it painful to urinate. Sometimes, people have flu-like symptoms with groin pain from swollen lymph nodes during the initial infection. Usually symptoms appear a few weeks after exposure and will go away on their own. The human papilloma virus (HPV) is very common and can place women at a high risk for cervical cancer. Typically, it doesn’t have any symptoms, but some strains are known to cause genital warts, which can have no symptoms or have symptoms including small, flesh-colored/gray swellings in your genitals, several warts close together that look like a cauliflower, itching/discomfort in your genitals and bleeding with intercourse. The warts can occur in the mouth or throat of person if they have had oral sex with an infected person. Hepatitis has many different strains, but the common are A, B and C. All of them are contagious, but B and C are the most serious. All of the types of hepatitis affect your liver and usually cause it to become inflamed. Some people don’t ever have any symptoms, but others experience fatigue, nausea/vomiting, abdominal pain/discomfort, loss of appetite, fever, dark-colored urine, muscle/joint pain, itching and jaundice (yellowing of your skin and whites of your eyes). Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) interferes with your body’s ability to fight off infection from other viruses, bacteria and fungi. If not treated, it can lead to AIDS (Auto-Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which is a life-threatening disease. There are no symptoms after exposure to HIV until 2 – 6 weeks later when most people complain of flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, rash and fatigue. These symptoms go away within a week to a month. Given that the symptoms are very similar to other viral illnesses, they are often mistaken for another illness. It is during this period though that you are highly contagious and can spread the disease without even knowing it. Even once you get over the initial infection, the virus is continuing to multiply and destroy your immune cells and you can continually have mild infections or develop chronic symptoms, like swollen lymph nodes, diarrhea, weight loss cough/shortness of breath and fever. Unfortunately, as HIV progresses, it typically leads to a weakened immune system that is unable to fight off a simple infection and results in death.
If an STI is left untreated, it leaves you susceptible to acquiring another STI, like HIV. This is why it is important that you get examined by a doctor regularly, especially if you have any concerns. It is also important to inform your partner or partners so they can be examined and treated, if needed. Bacterial STIs are treated with antibiotics. Sometimes, all it takes is one dose to cure the infection. Other times, you will be prescribed a course of antibiotics and it is extremely important that you follow the directions and finish all of the antibiotics. If you don’t, it can cause the bacteria to become resistant to the antibiotics, which makes them ineffective at treating the infection. Parasitic STIs are treated by antibiotics or anti-parasitics. Viral STIs can’t be cured, but the symptoms are managed with anti-viral medications. This helps to control the virus for consistent periods of time. Doesn’t matter which type of STI you have, it is vital to abstain from intercourse or any sexual activities until you have completed the treatment and have received negative medical tests.
While no method can 100% guarantee that you will not contract a STI, when condoms are used properly, they are highly effective at reducing transmission of most of them. It is also important to be seen regularly by a doctor to be screened for any potential infections. Since many STIs have no or minimal symptoms, this step is important at catching an infection in its early stages and preventing transmission to others. It is important to talk to your partner or partners about reducing the risk of infection. Also, if you don’t feel like doing something because you aren’t comfortable with the risk involved, then don’t do it.
Sexually Transmitted Infections are something that we all need to be aware of and do everything we can to prevent the transmission off. If you have any questions or concerns about STIs, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the Center for Disease Control’s STD page at https://www.cdc.gov/std/default.htm