Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are very common. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
While many STDs cause mild symptoms (or even no symptoms at all), they can increase your risk of contracting HIV. That’s one of many reasons it’s important to practice safe sex and to seek treatment if you think you’ve been exposed.
The term STD is often used interchangeably with the term sexually transmitted infection (STI). But despite this common misconception, STDs and STIs aren’t exactly the same. Each term has a specific meaning:
- STI. An STI is a sexually transmitted infection and doesn’t cause any symptoms. Instead, an STI refers to the presence of the virus, bacteria, or other pathogens in your body.
- STD. An STD is a sexually transmitted disease, which does cause symptoms. It happens when the pathogens in your body have led to the cell damage that produces symptoms.
Put simply, an infection just means the presence of the pathogen is in your body, while a disease means you’re having symptoms. A condition is only considered an STD if there are symptoms.
This might seem like a small difference, but the distinction is important. This is especially true for STIs that rarely cause symptoms, like chlamydia or gonorrhea. For many people, these STIs won’t ever progress to STDs.
Although you probably know that both STDs and HIV can be spread through unprotected sexual contact, you might not know just how much overlap exists between them. There are significant links between STDs and HIV. Understanding these links can help you stay safe.
Spreading HIV and STDs
HIV and STDs are both contracted by having unprotected sexual contact of any kind. This includes vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
But sexual contact isn’t the only way to contract an STD or HIV. Pathogens like HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C can also be spread by sharing needles or other drug paraphernalia.
Birthing parents can also pass HIV and some STDs on to babies while pregnant, during delivery, or through breastfeeding. For example, chlamydia and gonorrhea are two types of pathogens that can be passed to a baby during delivery.
Risks of contracting HIV and STDs
Just as HIV and STDs are spread in the same ways, they can also share some of the same risk factors. A risk factor is anything that makes you more likely to contract a condition or disease.
For HIV and some STDs, risk factors include:
- having unprotected sex of any kind
- sharing injection needles
- sharing tattoo or piercing needles
- having sexual encounters under the influence of drugs or alcohol
The risks of contracting HIV or an STD are also higher among some populations and groups. This can be due to a variety of factors, like:
- lack of access to healthcare
- discrimination faced in accessing healthcare
- population size
For example, in 2019,
STDs make it easier to get HIV
Having an STD can make it easier for you to get HIV. When you have an STD, it can change the cells in your vagina, penis, rectum, or mouth. Sometimes these changed cells cause visible open sores or ulcers, but cells can also be changed without any signs or symptoms.
These changed cells make it easier for HIV to enter your body. That means that if you already have an STD and you have unprotected sex with someone with HIV, you’re more likely to contract HIV from the encounter.
Additionally, people who have both an STD and HIV are more likely to spread HIV to partners. Having an STD and HIV increases the amount of the HIV virus in semen or vaginal fluid. The increased amount makes it more likely that the virus will get passed on to a sexual partner.
Some STDs are more closely linked with HIV than others. For example, a 2010 study in Florida found that
It’s important to remember that many STDs have no symptoms and that a person can have HIV for years before any symptoms begin. This means that it’s very possible to have an STD, HIV, or both — and not know it.
This is why safe sex practices are so important. Unless you and any sexual partners have recently been tested for STDs and HIV, it’s best to use protection every time.
Treating STDs and HIV
It’s important to get tested if you think you’ve been exposed to any STD or to HIV. Getting proper treatment can reduce your risk of serious complications and the chance of spreading it to others. Although the treatments for STDs and HIV are different, there’s some overlap.
Treating an STD can help to slow the spread of HIV in your body. But STD treatments won’t prevent or stop HIV. Similarly, the antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV won’t prevent or cure STDs.
The treatments you’ll need for an STD depend on which one you have.
STDs caused by bacteria like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are treated with antibiotics. STDs caused by viruses like human papilloma virus (HPV), hepatitis B, and herpes can’t be cured, but treatments can reduce your symptoms and your risk of passing them on to others.
HIV is also caused by a virus and can’t be cured. But treatments can stop HIV from progressing to AIDS and can greatly reduce the risk of passing the virus on to sexual partners.
In fact, people who take antiretroviral drugs as directed and have an undetectable amount of HIV in their blood effectively have
Viral STDs or HIV can’t be cured, but many people living with them still lead full and active lives. When treated, these conditions don’t cause symptoms and don’t continue to damage your body. The virus will continue to live in your body, but the treatments will keep it from harming you.
It’s important to get treated for an STD or HIV as soon as possible, and to stick with any treatment plan a medical professional recommends. There are also resources available if you can’t afford your treatments.
One of the best ways to prevent an STD or HIV is to use a barrier method, like a condom, during sexual contact. Other steps you can take include:
- Talk with any sexual partners about safe sex, STDs, and HIV.
- Make sure you use barrier methods correctly every time you engage in sexual activities.
- Use a new barrier every time you engage in sexual activities.
- Don’t have sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- Don’t share needles of any kind with anyone.
- Take any medications for an STD exactly as prescribed, even if you’re not experiencing symptoms.
- Talk with a medical professional if you think you’ve been exposed to an STD or HIV.
- Ask a medical professional about post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) if you think you’ve been exposed to HIV. PEP can prevent infection if taken within 72 hours of exposure.
- Talk with a medical professional about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PREP) for HIV prevention.
Getting the conversation started
There’s still a stigma around STDs and HIV that can make them embarrassing or difficult to talk about. But there’s no shame in taking steps to protect yourself and your sexual partners.
Talking with a doctor and any partners doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. Here are a few tips on where to start:
- Bringing up STDs with a medical professional during a general visit about other health concerns can make it easier to start the conversation.
- Asking questions about any steps you should be taking for your sexual health is a good way to start the conversation about safe sex and STDs.
- Using a leading question like, “I’ve recently started dating again and wanted to ask a few questions about safe sex,” during your appointment might make you feel more comfortable.
- Emphasizing to partners that you’re concerned about their safety, as well as your own, can lead to more productive conversations.
STDs and HIV are linked in many ways. One of the most important links to be aware of is that having an STD increases your risk of contracting HIV. Having both an STD and HIV also increases your risk of passing HIV onto a partner.
It’s important to get tested any time you think you might have been exposed to an STD or HIV. Treatment can reduce your symptoms and your risk of passing it on to others.