An Introduction to
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), once called venereal diseases,
are among the most common infectious diseases in the United States
today. More than 20 STDs have not been identified, and they affect
more than 13 million men and women in this country each year. The
annual comprehensive cost of STDs in the United States is estimated
to be well in excess of $10 billion.
basic facts about STDs - the ways in which they spread, their common
symptoms, and how they can be treated - is the first step toward
prevention. The information contained in these pages is drawn from
information published by the National Institute of Allergy and
Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a part of the National Institute of
Health. It is important to understand at least five key points about
all STDs in this country today:
STDs affect men
and women of all backgrounds and economic levels. They are most
prevalent among teenagers and young adults. Nearly two-thirds of
all STDs occur in people younger than 25 years of age.
The incidence of
STDs is rising, in part because in the last few decades, young
people have become sexually active earlier yet are marrying
later. In addition, divorce is more common. The net result is
that sexually active people today are more likely to have
multiple sex partners during their lives and are potentially at
risk for developing STDs.
Most of the time,
STDs cause no symptoms, particularly in women. When and if
symptoms develop, they may be confused with those of other
diseases not transmitted through sexual contact. Even when an
STD causes no symptoms, however, a person who is infected may be
able to pass the disease on to a sex partner. That is why many
doctors recommend periodic testing or screening for people who
have more than one sex partner.
caused by STDs tend to be more severe and more frequent for
women than for men, in part because the frequency of
asymptomatic infection means that many women do not seek care
until serious problems have developed
*Some STDs can spread into the uterus (womb) and
fallopian tubes to cause Pelvic
Inflammatory disease (PID), which in turn is a major cause of
both infertility and
ectopic (tubal) pregnancy. The latter can be fatal.
*STDs in women also ma be associated with cervical
cancer. One STD, human
papillomavirus (HPV), causes genital warts and cervical and
other genital cancers.
*STDs can be passed from a mother to her baby before,
during, or immediately after
birth; some of these infections of the newborn can be cured
easily, but others may
cause a baby to be permanently disabled or even die.
and treated early, many STDs can be treated effectively. Some
diseases have become resistant to the drugs used to treat them
and now require newer types of antibiotics. Experts believe that
having STDs other than AIDS increases one's risk for becoming
infected with the AIDS virus.
Brief descriptions of
common STDs are included below. For more detailed information, click
on the links at the bottom of this page.
HIV Infection and
AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) was first reported in the
United States in 1981. It is caused by the human immunodeficiency
virus (HIV), a virus that destroys the body's ability to fight of
infection. An estimated 900,000 people in the United States are
currently infected with HIV. People who have AIDS are very
susceptible to many life-threatening diseases, called opportunistic
infections, and to certain forms of cancer. Transmission of the
virus primarily occurs during sexual activity and by sharing needles
used to inject intravenous drugs.
This infection is now the most common of all bacterial STDs, with an
estimated 4 to 8 million new cases occurring each year. In both men
and women, chlamydial infection may cause an abnormal genital
discharge and burning with urination. In women, untreated chlamydial
infection may lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, one of the most
common causes of ectopic pregnancy and infertility in women. Many
people with chlamydial infection, however, have few or no symptoms
of infection. Once diagnosed with chlamydial infection, a person can
be treated with an antibiotic.
Genital herpes affects an estimated 60 million Americans.
Approximately 500,000 new cases of this incurable viral infection
develop annually. Herpes infections are caused by herpes simplex
virus (HSV). The major symptoms of herpes infection are painful
blisters or open sores in the genital area. These may be preceded by
a tingling or burning sensation in the legs, buttocks, or genital
region. The herpes sores usually disappear within two to three
weeks, but the virus remains in the body for life and the lesions
may recur from time to time. Severe or frequently recurrent genital
herpes is treated with one of several antiviral drugs that are
available by prescription. These drugs help control the symptoms but
do not eliminate the herpes virus from the body. Suppressive
antiviral therapy can be used to prevent occurrences and perhaps
transmission. Women who acquire genital herpes during pregnancy can
transmit the virus to their babies. Untreated HSV infection in
newborns can result in mental retardation and death.
Genital warts (also called venereal warts or condylomata acuminata)
are caused by human papillomavirus, a virus related to the virus
that causes common skin warts. Genital warts usually first appear as
small, hard painless bumps in the vaginal area, on the penis, or
around the anus. If untreated, they may grow and develop a fleshy,
cauliflower-like appearance. Genital warts infect an estimated 1
million Americans each year. In addition to genital warts, certain
high-risk types of HPV cause cervical cancer and other genital
cancers. Genital warts are treated with a topical drug (applied to
the skin), by freezing, or if they recur, with injections of a type
of interferon. If the warts are very large, they can be removed by
Approximately 400,000 cases of gonorrhea are reported to the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year in the
country. The most common symptoms of gonorrhea are a discharge from
the vagina and penis and painful or difficult urination. The most
common and serious complications occur in women and, as with
chlamydial infection, these complications include PID, ectopic
pregnancy, and infertility. Historically, penicillin has been used
to treat gonorrhea, but in the last decade, four types of antibiotic
resistance have emerged. New antibiotics or combinations of drugs
must be used to treat these resistant strains.
The incidence of syphilis has increased and decreased dramatically
in recent years, with more than 11,000 cases reported in 1996. The
first symptoms of syphilis may go undetected because they are very
mild and disappear spontaneously. The initial symptom is a chancre,
it is usually a painless open sore that usually appears on the penis
or around the vagina. It can also occur near the mouth, anus, or on
the hands. In untreated, syphilis may go on to more advanced stages,
including a transient rash and, eventually, serious involvement of
the heart and central nervous system. The full course of the disease
can take years. Penicillin remains the most effective drug to treat
people with syphilis.
Other diseases that
may be sexually transmitted include trichomoniasis, bacterial
vaginosis, cytomegalovirus infections, scabies, and pubic lice.
STDs in pregnancy
women are associated with a number of adverse outcomes, including
spontaneous abortion and infection in the newborn. Low birth weight
and prematurity appear to be associated with STIs, including
chlamydial infection and trichomoniasis. Congenital or perinatal
infection (infection that occurs around the time of birth) occurs in
30 to 70 percent of infants born to infected mothers, and
complications may include pneumonia, eye infections, and permanent
What Can You Do to
The best way to prevent STDs is to avoid sexual contact with others.
as having an STD should:
*Be treated to reduce the risk of transmitting an STD
to an infant
*Discuss with a doctor the possible risk of
transmission in breast milk and whether commercial
formula should be substituted.
*Notify all recent sex partners and urge them to get a
*Follow the doctor's orders and complete the full
course of medication prescribed. A follow-up
test to ensure that the infection has been cured
is often an important step in treatment.
*Avoid all sexual activity while being treated for an
Sometimes people are
too embarrassed or frightened to ask for help or information. Most
STDs are readily treated, and the earlier a person seeks treatment
and warns sex partners about the disease, the less likely the
disease will do irreparable physical damage, be spread to others or,
in the case of a woman, be passed on to a newborn baby.
information, please click on the links below:
Note: All information
is based upon materials published by the National Institute of
Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAD).
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