The term "sexually transmitted infection" (STI) is used to refer to any illness that is passed from one person to another through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Some STIs can also be transmitted via intravenous needle use or through breastfeeding. STI's are also sometimes known as "sexually transmitted disease" or formerly "venereal disease."
Types of STIs
Twenty or so different conditions all fall under the umbrella term of sexually transmitted infection. Some of these carry obvious symptoms, alerting the carrier to their condition; others may lie dormant or have no outward symptoms, leaving the carrier unaware and at risk of passing it on to sexual partners and suffering internal damage that does not cause pain. STIs such as syphilis and HIV can have severe consequences for both men and women. Others may not have obvious immediate symptoms, but when left untreated, may cause long-term fertility problems and an increased risk of certain cancers, particularly in women. Common symptoms include rashes, burning sensations, abnormal discharge (from either the penis or the vagina), sores, blisters, and pain.
Some of the best-known STIs are:
Herpes is the short name for Herpes Simplex Virus, or HSV. Two types of herpes can infect the oral and/or genital regions: oral herpes (caused by HSV-1) and genital herpes (generally caused by HSV-2). The most common symptom of both of these is blistery sores. Although there is no cure, medications can help to control outbreaks. Herpes can be very dangerous to infected newborns so it is very important that prospective mothers and pregnant women are aware of their HSV-2 status.
A bacterial infection also known as "the clap," gonorrhea often displays few, if any, symptoms. Those who do experience symptoms may notice itching around the genitals and a yellowish-green discharge. Untreated, it can cause premature labor, infertility, and serious health problems in newborns. Gonorrhea can be cured with antibiotic treatment. One bout of gonorrhea does not protect you from getting it again; every exposure can mean a new infection.
The most common bacterial STI in the U.S., Chlamydia shows no symptoms in more than half of those who contract it. Untreated, it can cause infertility and pelvic inflammatory disease in women and sterility in men. Once diagnosed, it is very easy to treat with antibiotics.
A bacterial infection, syphilis often goes unnoticed in the early stages. Primary symptoms are few, but may include sores. This may be followed by fatigue, low grade fever, rashes, and muscle pains. If left untreated, late stage syphilis can lead to peripheral nerve damage, brain damage and death. Fortunately, if caught early enough, syphilis is easily treated by antibiotics. There is currently a resurgence of syphilis in the United States.
HPV (Human Papillomavirus)
HPV can cause a range of health issues, from the very minor to the more serious (cancer). There is no cure but the HPV vaccination can protect women against the types that cause 70% of all cervical cancer cases. HPV vaccination is also available for men to protect them from anal and penile cancers. Because the most common way for a woman to become infected is through heterosexual intercourse, preventing infection in men as well as women can do even more to break the cycle of infection.
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus)
A person can carry HIV and not show any symptoms for as long as ten years. It can lead to a badly compromised immune system and can cause AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Although there is no known cure, medicine has made great strides in being able to extend the life span of those with HIV. With proper treatment, people infected with HIV can live as long as people without HIV and will often die from conditions other than HIV. HIV testing is widely available and can be done confidentially and for no cost in all major cities and many public health clinics.
Genital warts caused by HPV are spread through skin-to-skin contact and may appear on the penis, the vulva, or the anus. Genital warts can be extremely large and must be removed by a medical practitioner skilled in their removal. Most people are able to clear the virus that causes these warts. However, if the virus remains, more warts can crop up even though other have been removed.
Trichomoniasis (or "trich) is one of the most common causes of itchy, malodorous vagina. Men may be unaware that they carry the infection. Women may notice an unpleasant frothy vaginal discharge and a burning sensation. This can be diagnosed in the office after a routine gynecologic exam and microscopic examination of cells from the vagina. Fortunately, this is easily treated, though re-infection is also very common. Once diagnosed, both partners should be treated.
Hepatitis B and C
Hepatitis B and C are found in the bloodstream and are most often transmitted by sharing IV drug needles, but they can also be transmitted during sex. This is due to the fact that sexual activity may result in skin breakages and bleeding that allow for exchange of blood between partners. There is a very effective vaccine versus Hepatitis B, and it is very important to get this vaccine, particularly if you are young, since acquiring hepatitis B at a younger age makes it more likely the infection will lead to liver cancer. There are some effective treatments for hepatitis B, but it is important that the disease is identified early and that the patient commit to long courses of therapy. There is no vaccine for Hepatitis C and Hepatitis C is even more strongly associated with liver cancer than Hepatitis B. It is important to be screened if you think you may be at risk after sexual intercourse with a person infected with hepatitis C. Hepatitis C can also be cured, though the rates of success are variable and depend on the strain of virus involved.
Other, less common, STIs include:
- Candidiasis (yeast infection)
- Crab Louse
- Molluscum Contagiosum
- Systemic gonoccal infection
Doctors can diagnose STIs through a variety of tests. An annual Pap smear can check women for the presence of precancerous cells and possible HPV. STI testing is available through your regular physician, via home kit, or at a clinic. Cheek or vaginal swabs, blood and urine tests, and physical examinations may all be required, and different conditions have different testing procedures.
The type of STI will determine the treatment. Bacterial infections can be treated fairly easily with antibiotics. Viral infections usually have no cure, but the body is very efficient at clearing HPV and many other viruses. Medications can help to quell further outbreaks but continued safe sexual practices must be followed to prevent the increases in new and repeat cases of disease. .
Abstinence is the only foolproof way to avoid contracting an STI. However, there are ways to make sexual contact safer, thus lessening the risk of contracting or transmitting an infection. When used properly, latex condoms provide the best protection against both pregnancy and STIs. Honest discussion about one's sexual history is essential, and regular testing is advised if you have multiple sexual partners or if you are not engaged in a long-term, monogamous relationship. It is important to note that hormonally-based birth control like the pill, patch, or ring, do not protect you from STIs. Intrauterine devices (IUDs) do not prevent STIs.