Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections transmitted from one person to another through sexual activity. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are different from STDs in that a person with an STI can have the infection, but will not show symptoms. In other words, the infection has not developed into a disease.
STDs can cause a lot of symptoms from rashes and genital warts to infertility and liver failure. Here is a list of the most common STDs, their symptoms and treatments, and how to prevent getting the infection in the first place.
Genital herpes is an STD caused by two viruses, called Type 1 and Type 2. Both kinds of herpes can infect the genital area and the mouth. However, infection of the mouth is usually caused by Type 1 and infection of the genitals are usually caused by Type 2 The herpes viruses can be inactive for weeks or months or even years, but can keep coming back as an active infection throughout life. You can be infected by both types of herpes at the same time.
Some infected people don’t get any symptoms from the virus at all, but can still infect others. When symptoms develop, they can be painful blisters or ulcers at the site of infection (mouth or genitals or anus). Herpes is transmitted through direct contact, such as kissing, sex, and contact with the genital area or fluids of someone who is infected.
There is currently no cure for herpes. However, antiviral drugs can help to shorten outbreaks, decrease symptoms, and make the virus less contagious to others.
Chlamydia is a common bacterial STD that causes the inflammation of the urethra, rectum, and anus in men and women and also inflammation of the cervix in women (Figure 2). It typically does not cause symptoms, but infected persons can experience a burning feeling when they urinate or have an abnormal discharge from the vagina or penis. The infection can cause chronic pelvic pain. It can also cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) or block the fallopian tubes, either of which can cause infertility. It can also increase the chances of an ectopic pregnancy, which always results in the death of the fetus and can also kill the mother. 
Chlamydia is contagious during oral, vaginal, or anal sex and can be passed from the mother to baby during childbirth. Antibiotics can cure chlamydia but will not reverse damage that the bacteria already caused to your body, such as scarring.
Gonorrhea, aka “The Clap,” is caused by bacteria that infects mucous membranes, affecting the urethra, rectum or throat in both males and females. It can also affect the uterus, fallopian tubes, and cervix in females (Figure 2).
The infection is spread during oral, vaginal, or anal sex and from mother to baby during childbirth. Gonorrhea doesn’t usually cause symptoms, but some patients experience a painful, burning sensation during urination and/or have an unusual discharge. It can also cause vaginal bleeding between periods, abdominal pain, and pelvic pain in females. Gonorrhea, like chlamydia, can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). 
Antibiotics can be taken to treat the infection, but will not reverse any damage that the bacteria caused before the treatment.
Syphilis is not as common as the other STDs above. It is caused by bacteria that infect the lips, mouth, genital area, or anus.
There are four stages of syphilis but the infection does not have to happen in the same order.
Primary syphilis causes a small sore (a chancre) in the spot that was infected. The sores will appear 3 weeks after infection and will heal by themselves about 6 weeks after that. Secondary syphilis usually begins several weeks after the sore heals. During this stage, a full body rash will start on the trunk of the body and will spread. The rash could either disappear completely or come and go for as long as a year. After those obvious symptoms, most people will have been diagnosed and treated for syphilis. However, if an infected person hasn’t gotten treatment, the infection can progress into latent or tertiary syphilis.
Latent syphilis is when there are no longer symptoms. Either the disease will never come back or it will move to tertiary stage. Tertiary syphilis is when the infection comes back and can result in damage to the brain, nerves, eyes, heart, liver, and joints. This can lead to neurosyphilis, which can result in impaired balance, chronic pain, lack of muscle coordination, and nausea.
If treated at its early stages, syphilis can easily be cured by an injection of penicillin. Latent syphilis can possibly be treated with multiple injections of penicillin every week for an undetermined duration. The treatment time is different for everyone because the bacteria can become dormant at different times for different people. People who have been cured of syphilis are still capable of getting a new syphilis infection if they are exposed.
Hepatitis B (HBV)
Hepatitis B is a virus that infects the liver. The virus is transmitted through body fluids such as blood and semen. The infection is typically spread through sex, sharing needles, or from the mother to child during childbirth. It is considered chronic if it lasts more than 6 months.
Symptoms vary depending on your age. About 30-50% of people older than the age of 5 have symptoms that include fever, fatigue, vomiting, dark urine, and jaundice. Hepatitis B does not always go from acute to chronic. However, in 90% of infants, 25-50% of children age 1-5, and 5% of adults, the acute infection does become chronic infection. This happens if the infection is not treated or if the treatment is not effective and the virus remains in the body for longer than 6 months.
Children are typically vaccinated for hepatitis B at age 11-15. If you have not been vaccinated and are aware that you have come into contact with the virus, you see a doctor as soon as possible. You need a shot within 12 hours of infection to avoid developing the disease. There is no treatment for acute or chronic hepatitis B. It is recommended that a person with an acute infection gets adequate fluids and nutrition to make sure the body has resources to kill the virus. If acute infection does turn into chronic infection, there are treatments to reduce the amount of virus in the blood and the risk of developing liver disease. Such treatments include antiviral medications, interferon alfa-2b injections, and liver transplant in serious cases. If you are diagnosed with chronic hepatitis B, you should see a doctor to develop a treatment plan.
Most of these STDs can be diagnosed by a doctor by a urine test or a swab test of the affected areas. In some cases of Hepatitis B, doctors may want a liver sample to determine how bad the liver damage is.
More than half of the population will get an STD or STI within their lifetime, so it is very easy to catch one from sexual activity. The most effective way to avoid getting STDs or STIs is abstinence. The vaccines for hepatitis B and HPV are not as effective as abstinence but offer very good protection (although it is not known how long the HPV vaccine is effective). When used correctly and consistently, male and female condoms and dental dams provide physical barriers that can protect you from getting an STD or STI. However, some STDs, such as herpes, can spread if blisters are not covered by the condom.
Having only one sex partner or a small number of sex partners also will decrease your chances of getting STDs. Even so, you should get tested regularly. If you are diagnosed with an STD or STI, you should tell your partner or partners to prevent spreading the disease to others.
All articles on our website have been approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
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