What's in this article?
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are caused by infections that are passed from one person to another during sexual contact.
These infections often do not cause any symptoms. Medically, infections are only called diseases when they cause symptoms. That is why STDs are also called “sexually transmitted infections.” But it’s very common for people to use the terms “sexually transmitted diseases” or “STDs,” even when there are no signs of disease.
There are many kinds of sexually transmitted diseases and infections. And they are very common more than half of all of us will get one at some time in our lives. Use the list above to find out about each kind of STD.
The good news is we can protect ourselves and each other from STDs. Practicing safer sex allows you to reduce your risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases. And if you’ve done anything that puts you at risk of infection, getting tested allows you to get any treatments you may need.
STD or STI? What’s the difference?
Diseases that are spread through sexual contact are usually referred to as sexually transmitted diseases or STDs for short. In recent years, however, many experts in this area of public health have suggested replacing STD with a new term sexually transmitted infection, or STI.
Symptoms of STD
If you have sex oral, anal or vaginal intercourse and genital touching you can get an STD, also called a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Straight or gay, married or single, you’re vulnerable to STIs and STI symptoms. Thinking or hoping your partner doesn’t have an STI is no protection you need to know for sure. And although condoms are highly effective for reducing transmission of some STDs, no method is foolproof.
STI symptoms aren’t always obvious. If you think you have STI symptoms or have been exposed to an STI, see a doctor. Some STIs are easy to treat and cure; others require more-complicated treatment to manage them.
It’s essential to be evaluated, and if diagnosed with an STI get treated. It’s also essential to inform your partner or partners so that they can be evaluated and treated.
If untreated, STIs can increase your risk of acquiring another STI such as HIV. This happens because an STI can stimulate an immune response in the genital area or cause sores, either of which might raise the risk of HIV transmission. Some untreated STIs can also lead to infertility.
STIs often asymptomatic
STIs often have no signs or symptoms (asymptomatic). Even with no symptoms, however, you can pass the infection to your sex partners. So it’s important to use protection, such as a condom, during sex. And visit your doctor regularly for STI screening, so you can identify and treat an infection before you can pass it on.
Some of the following diseases, such as hepatitis, can be transmitted without sexual contact, by coming into contact with an infected person’s blood. Others, such as gonorrhea, can only be transmitted through sexual contact.
Chlamydia is a bacterial infection of your genital tract. Chlamydia may be difficult to detect because early-stage infections often cause few or no signs and symptoms. When they do occur, they usually start one to three weeks after you’ve been exposed to chlamydia. Even when signs and symptoms occur, they’re often mild and passing, making them easy to overlook.
Signs and symptoms may include:
- Painful urination
- Lower abdominal pain
- Vaginal discharge in women
- Discharge from the penis in men
- Pain during sexual intercourse in women
- Bleeding between periods in women
- Testicular pain in men
Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection of your genital tract. It can also grow in your mouth, throat, eyes and anus. The first gonorrhea symptoms generally appear within 10 days after exposure. However, some people may be infected for months before signs or symptoms occur.
Signs and symptoms of gonorrhea may include:
- Thick, cloudy or bloody discharge from the penis or vagina
- Pain or burning sensation when urinating
- Heavy menstrual bleeding or bleeding between periods
- Painful, swollen testicles
- Painful bowel movements
- Anal itching
Trichomoniasis is a common STI caused by a microscopic, one-celled parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. This organism spreads during sexual intercourse with someone who already has the infection.
The organism usually infects the urinary tract in men, but often causes no symptoms. Trichomoniasis typically infects the vagina in women. When trichomoniasis causes symptoms, they may appear within five to 28 days of exposure and range from mild irritation to severe inflammation.
Signs and symptoms may include:
- Clear, white, greenish or yellowish vaginal discharge
- Discharge from the penis
- Strong vaginal odor
- Vaginal itching or irritation
- Itching or irritation inside the penis
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Painful urination
HIV is an infection with the human immunodeficiency virus. HIV interferes with your body’s ability to fight off viruses, bacteria and fungi that cause illness, and it can lead to AIDS, a chronic, life-threatening disease.
When first infected with HIV, you may have no symptoms. Some people develop a flu-like illness, usually two to six weeks after being infected. Still, the only way you know if you have HIV is to be tested.
Early signs and symptoms
Early HIV signs and symptoms may include:
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph glands
These early signs and symptoms usually disappear within a week to a month and are often mistaken for those of another viral infection. During this period, you’re highly infectious. More-persistent or -severe symptoms of HIV infection may not appear for 10 years or more after the initial infection.
As the virus continues to multiply and destroy immune cells, you may develop mild infections or chronic signs and symptoms such as:
- Swollen lymph nodes often one of the first signs of HIV infection
- Weight loss
- Cough and shortness of breath
Late-stage HIV infection
Signs and symptoms of late-stage HIV infection include:
- Persistent, unexplained fatigue
- Soaking night sweats
- Shaking chills or fever higher than 100.4 F (38 C) for several weeks
- Swelling of lymph nodes for more than three months
- Chronic diarrhea
- Persistent headaches
- Unusual, opportunistic infections
How STDs Spread
One reason STDs spread is because people think they can only be infected if they have sexual intercourse. That’s wrong. A person can get some STDs, like herpes or genital warts, through skin-to-skin contact with an infected area or sore.
Another myth about STDs is that you can’t get them if you have oral or anal sex. That’s also wrong because the viruses or bacteria that cause STDs can enter the body through tiny cuts or tears in the mouth and anus, as well as the genitals.
STDs also spread easily because you can’t tell whether someone has an infection. In fact, some people with STDs don’t even know that they have them. These people are in danger of passing an infection on to their sex partners without even realizing it.
Some of the things that increase a person’s chances of getting an STD are:
- Sexual activity at a young age. The younger a person starts having sex, the greater his or her chances of becoming infected with an STD.
- Lots of sex partners. People who have sexual contact not just intercourse, but any form of intimate activity — with many different partners are more at risk than those who stay with the same partner.
- Unprotected sex. Latex condoms are the only form of birth control that reduce your risk of getting an STD, and must be used every time. Spermicides, diaphragms, and other birth control methods may help prevent pregnancy, but they don’t protect a person against STDs.