What if I told you there are infections so prevalent that they affect nearly 1 million people every day worldwide? Not only that, but these particular infections continue to be on the rise each and every year.
I’m talking about sexually transmitted infections, or STIs (also referred to as sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs). Sexual health is often a taboo topic, but it’s one many people have questions about — the problem is, they’re often too afraid or uncomfortable to bring it up with their doctor.
Let’s get to the bottom of some of the most commonly asked questions about sexually transmitted infections.
1. What causes sexually transmitted infections?
It is estimated that there are nearly 20 million new cases of STIs each year in the U.S. alone. Currently, there are more than 30 different bacteria, viruses and parasites known to cause STIs, with the majority of infections caused by curable infections like gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and trichomonas.
2. How do STIs spread?
Sexually transmitted infections are generally spread through sexual contact, including vaginal, oral and anal sex. Some types of sexually transmitted infections, such as hepatitis or HIV can also be spread through blood products or from sharing needles and syringes. Several other diseases such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, HIV, herpes, HPV and hepatitis can be spread from a mother to her baby during pregnancy or delivery.
3. What are the signs of a sexually transmitted infection?
The scary part about STIs is that they can be silent. The majority of infections are asymptomatic or do not show any signs initially. If they do cause symptoms, they usually present with vaginal or penile discharge, pain with urination, genital sores, warts or ulcers, abdominal pain, fever and bleeding or pain with intercourse.
4. How often should you be screened for STIs?
Since the majority of STIs can be asymptomatic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends yearly screening for chlamydia and gonorrhea for sexually active women ages 15-25. Additionally, all adolescents and adults age 13-65 should be screened for HIV at least once.
Screening can be performed as part of your yearly annual wellness visit or anytime with your healthcare provider.
Generally, we recommend you be screened once you become sexually active and any time you have a new sex partner. Annual screening is encouraged. Screening can be performed as part of your yearly annual wellness visit or anytime with your healthcare provider.
Higher risk populations may require more frequent screenings — talk to your doctor about your personal risk factors. Pregnant women require additional screening during pregnancy for HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia and hepatitis B and C.
5. How are STIs treated?
Some infections, such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and trichomonas, are treated with antibiotic therapy, usually requiring one single dose. Sometimes they may require a few additional doses or multiple antibiotics depending on the specific infection.
Some of the other infections, such as herpes, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) or HIV, cannot be treated but can be managed with either anti-virals or with other office-based therapies for the lesions.
6. Are sexually transmitted infections preventable?
There is an effective vaccine available for preventing HPV, which causes both genital warts and cancers such as cervical cancer, anal cancer and head, neck and throat cancers. Both boys and girls starting at age 9 are recommended to get the vaccine Gardasil to help reduce their risk of getting HPV.
7. Why the stigma around STIs?
The reason STIs continue to be so prevalent — even though they are easily treated or managed — is the stigma that surrounds these types of infections. Patients are often afraid to ask for screenings or even to discuss their sexual health concerns with their healthcare providers.
You may also fear the negative impact this kind of infection will have on your personal life. It is important to remember that as your doctors, we are here to help you to stay safe and healthy in all areas of life, including your sexual health. So, please don’t hesitate to ask your doctor if you have questions or concerns. After all, that’s what we’re here for!
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About the author
This content has been written or reviewed by a member of the Baylor Scott & White Health medical staff.