Sexually transmitted diseases, sometimes referred to as sexually transmitted infections, are diseases spread through contact with semen, vaginal fluids and/or the anal cavity during sexual contact. Some can also be spread from genitals to the mouth or throat. They can be contracted from vaginal, anal or oral sex and effect both heterosexual and homosexual people and both men and women. STDs can be caused by viral, bacterial or protozoan infections. The risk to one's health should be taken seriously as it can have long lasting consequences. While some patients with STDs can be cured with medications, others cannot and will require medical treatment for the rest of a their lives. Abstinence is the only way to guarantee that a person will not be exposed to an STD. It is important for people who are sexually active to practice safe sex, like using condoms and dental dams, to help protect themselves from exposure to STDs. There is a significant percentage of the population who have tested positive for STDs and more who are positive but have not yet been diagnosed. Any person who is sexually active should be tested for STDs so that they can know their status, get treatment if needed, and help protect their current or future partners from infection.
How Common are STDs?
The CDC estimated in 2013 that 110 million people were infected with some form of STD and that 20 million new cases will be diagnosed each year. Some populations are at a higher risk of contracting an STD. Sex workers are considered a high risk population because they engage with a larger number of partners. IV drug users are at a higher risk of contracting STDs, like HIV or hepatitis C, if they share needles. It is possible for them to then infect others through unprotected sex.
What Are the Common STDs?
- HPV - Caused by a variant of the virus that produces warts, it is the most common STD. It can infect the penis, vulva, vagina or anus. It sometimes clears up on its own; if it does not, there is no cure and often causes cervical cancer.
- Trichomoniasis - Caused by a protozoa, it can infect the penis or vagina but typically not the anus. It can be treated with prescription drugs.
- Gonorrhea - Caused by a bacteria, it can infect the vagina, anus, penis or throat. It can be treated with antibiotics, although some strains are becoming resistant to treatment.
- Chlamydia - Caused by a bacteria, it can infect the vagina, anus, penis or throat. It can be treated with antibiotics.
- Herpes - Caused by a virus, it can infect the vagina, vulva, anus, penis, or throat. This virus cannot be cured but antiviral medication can help manage outbreaks of sores.
- Hepatitis - Caused by a virus, it infects the liver but can be spread through exposure to an infected person's blood or through unprotected sex. There are several forms, some of which are lifelong, chronic conditions.
- HIV - Human immunodeficiency virus can be spread through exposure to an infected person's blood or through unprotected sex. It can lead to AIDS, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, if it goes untreated. It is a lifelong condition that requires extensive treatment to manage.
Common STD Questions
Q: What is the best way to avoid contracting an STD?
A: Abstinence is the only way to guarantee that someone will not contract an STD. However, using safe sex practices, such as condoms and dental dams, significantly reduces the risk of infection.
Q: What should a person do if they think they may have contracted an STD?
A: Seek medical attention either through a doctor or local health department. Even if a person has no symptoms, if they have been engaging in unprotected sex, they should be tested for STDs. Some infections will not cause symptoms for weeks, months or even years.
Q: Can't most STDs be treated with antibiotics?
A: While it's true that some STDs can be treated with antibiotics, viral infections cannot be cured with these drugs and may have devastating long-term health consequences: compromised immune system, liver damage or cancers.
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