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STDs: Knowledge is the best defense

Every year, an estimated 19 million people find they have sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The bad news isn’t distributed equally. Nearly half are ages 15 to 24. Reported rates of chlamydia and syphilis were roughly nine times higher among African Americans than among whites, and gonorrhea more than 20 times higher, according to 2009 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That year, 44 percent of new HIV cases occurred among African Americans.

Learning about STDs and safer sex practices can help you defend yourself and your family from these serious health problems. Start below, then find out more by talking to your doctor.

What are some common STDs?


The most common sexually transmitted bacterial infection causes few or no symptoms, although it may prompt a burning sensation during urination or abnormal genital discharge. Because it’s so often “silent,” chlamydia can go untreated for a long time. That can be very harmful, especially in women, who may develop pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), tubal or ectopic pregnancy or infertility. Antibiotics can cure chlamydia.

Genital herpes

Two herpes simplex viruses (HSV) cause genital herpes. Signs of herpes include one or more blisters on or around the genitals and rectum. The blisters break, forming painful, open sores. While these heal in two to four weeks, the virus remains in the body, sparking recurrent outbreaks that may start with tingling or burning in legs, buttocks or genital area. Even without symptoms, a person can spread herpes. No cure is available, but antiviral drugs can help shorten and prevent outbreaks.


Burning during urination and abnormal genital discharge are signs of gonorrhea. Untreated, this STD may cause PID, tubal or ectopic pregnancy or infertility in women. Usually, antibiotics can cure gonorrhea.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)

If you have an STD, you’re more likely to get — and spread — HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. HIV attacks the immune system, making people vulnerable to numerous life-threatening diseases. HIV can spread through sexual activity, blood and even breast milk. While no cure is available, antiviral drugs and other medications can slow its progress and help prevent it from spreading.

HPV (human papillomavirus)

Many strains of HPV exist. Some cause genital warts inside or outside the vagina or penis, which may spread to surrounding skin. Women with certain types of HPV are at higher risk for cervical cancer. More rarely, some strains of HPV are involved in cancers of the penis, anus or the back of the throat. A vaccine can reduce risk for getting certain strains of HPV. Although genital warts can be treated, the virus remains in the body and can recur.


A painless sore on or around the vagina, penis or mouth that lasts three to six week is the first sign. A temporary rash may appear next. If not caught in early stages, syphilis can seriously harm the heart, brain and nervous system. Antibiotics can cure syphilis.

Other illnesses that can spread sexually include hepatitis B, pubic lice, vaginal yeast infections, trichomoniasis
and scabies.

How can you tell if you have an STD?

Unfortunately, many STDs initially cause fairly mild or no symptoms. Sometimes symptoms wax and wane. That’s common with herpes sores, for example.

Call your doctor for advice if you think you might have been exposed to an STD or notice any of these warning signs:

  • A sore, blister, rash, warts, unusual discharge, swelling, redness, pain or other problems on or around the genitals
    or anus

  • A sore in the mouth or rectum

  • Burning sensation or pain when urinating

  • Pelvic pain

  • Vaginal bleeding between periods

  • Long-lasting, unexplained flu-like symptoms or swollen lymph nodes

Untreated STDs can have devastating long-term health effects. When caught early, though, many STDs can be treated successfully.

How can you avoid getting an STD?

Whenever body fluids like sperm, vaginal secretions or saliva are exchanged, lurking STD viruses or bacteria may find a new host. Some STDs are carried in blood. For example, HIV also spreads when an infected person shares needles for injecting drugs, piercings or tattoos. That’s one reason it’s essential to use only sterile needles for such purposes.

Often, you can’t tell who has an STD. Abstaining from most kinds of sexual activity is the only sure way to avoid STDs. Even kissing can spread herpes and some other infections just as it transmits cold germs. And certainly, vaginal, anal and oral sex can do so, too.

If you’re sexually active, adopting these safer sex practices helps lower your risk of getting an STD:

  • Enjoy a mutually monogamous relationship in which neither you nor your partner has an STD.

  • Before starting a new sexual relationship, talk openly about past partners, STDs and drug and needle use.

  • Correctly use a latex or polyurethane condom every time you have intercourse (natural membrane condoms could let certain infections slip through).

  • If you have oral sex, use a dental dam or latex condom.

  • Pay attention to warning flags like sores, blisters, rashes, or abnormal discharge. Cold sores on the mouth or lips, for example, are a form of the herpes virus that can spread to a partner’s genitals during oral sex.

  • Don’t douche after intercourse. This can spread infection further into a woman’s reproductive tract.

  • Avoid intercourse when a woman has her period.

  • Choose sexual activities that allow you to avoid contact with body fluids or mucous membranes in the body, such as the mouth, vagina or anus.

  • Talk honestly to your doctor about drug and needle use, sexual partners and sexual activities. If you’re sexually active, ask how often to have exams for STDs. If you’re female, ask how often to have pelvic exams and Pap tests to check for cervical cancer.