Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), also called sexually transmitted infections (STIs), affect people of all ages, backgrounds, and from all walks of life. In the U.S. alone there are approximately 20 million new cases each year, half of which occur among people between 15 to 24 years.
If you’re sexually active with one or more people, part of being a responsible and considerate sex partner is learning about STDs and how they can impact your life. Plus, the more you and the people around you educate yourselves, the easier it is to accomplish two things:
- Reduce STD-related stigma, fear, and discrimination.
- Ensure people have the tools and knowledge to prevent, test for, and treat STDs.
For years, the U.S. has been battling steep, sustained increases in STDs.
A recent report by the CDC estimates that about 20% of the U.S. population — approximately one in five people in the U.S. — had an STI on any given day in 2018, and STIs acquired that year cost the American health care system nearly $16 billion in health care costs alone.
Plus, recent surveillance report data show STDs aren’t slowing down anytime soon and continue to reach all-time highs for the sixth consecutive year.
The Most Common STDs to Be Aware Of
While anyone who is sexually active is at risk of getting an STI, women, youth, and people of color are more likely to become infected. They can also face more serious medical complications.
The three most commonly reported infections in the U.S. are human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, and gonorrhea.
Before I detail what they (and some others) are, check out these quick STD facts:
- In 2019, 1,808,703 cases of Chlamydia were reported, up 19% from 2015.
- Gonorrhea was the second most common notifiable condition in the U.S. in 2019, with a 56% increase in cases since 2015.
- Syphilis cases were up by 74% in 2015, with 129,813 reported cases in 2019.
Frightening, isn’t it? Yes, but there are plenty of actions you can take to keep yourself and others safe during any kind of sexual activity.
I’ll share some preventative and after-care tips shortly, but let’s first break down the most common STIs you should be aware of:
🦠 Herpes: Herpes is a virus that can affect many areas of the body, including the mouth and eyes. But the sexually transmitted form of herpes most commonly affects the genitals. Currently, no treatment exists to cure herpes, but antiviral drugs can make outbreaks less painful and potentially reduce the risk of spreading the infection to a partner.
🦠 HPV: HPV is a virus that causes genital warts and increases the risk of some cancers, like cervical and throat cancer. A vaccine can prevent the virus, and some children receive the vaccine around the age of 12.
Many people with HPV have no symptoms. In fact, the types of HPV most likely to cause cancer rarely cause symptoms. Those who do have symptoms may develop small warts on and around their genitals.
🦠 Pubic lice: Also called crabs, pubic lice are tiny insects that feed on a person’s blood and live in coarse hair, such as pubic hair. They spread through close contact between people, or contact with clothing or other objects that have lice or eggs on them.
🦠 Chlamydia: Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that affects both men and women. If left untreated in women, it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can cause pelvic and stomach pain, and may even affect fertility.
Chlamydia can infect the vagina, penis, or rectum. While some people have no symptoms, others experience painful urination, burning during or after sex or unusual bleeding.
🦠 Gonorrhea: Like chlamydia, gonorrhea can infect both men and women and can cause PID in women. A bacterial infection that spreads through sexual contact, people with gonorrhea often have no symptoms at all.
Gonorrhea can also affect other areas of the body, causing symptoms like pain and itching in the eyes and a sore throat or swollen glands in the neck.
🦠 Bacterial vaginosis (BV): BV is a bacterial infection that affects the vagina. Doctors aren’t sure what causes it, but it’s more common among sexually active women. Many women with BV have no symptoms, though some experience discharge or even itching or burning, which may resemble a yeast infection.
🦠 Hepatitis: Hepatitis is a virus that affects the liver, and there are three types. Although Hepatitis A and B are sexually transmitted and highly contagious, they often don’t cause symptoms, and vaccination can protect against them.
It’s uncommon, but hepatitis C — a chronic illness that antivirals can sometimes cure — can also spread through sexual contact.
🦠 Trichomoniasis: Typically called trich, this is a parasite that spreads through sexual and close contact. Most people with trichomoniasis don’t know they have it, or it mirrors other infections like a yeast infection or a UTI. If left untreated, the infection can last for years and may spread to sexual partners.
🦠 HIV: HIV damages immune system cells, which makes it progressively more difficult for the body to fight infections. If you don’t treat it, HIV increases the risk of serious complications or even death from minor infections. People can contract HIV through contact with blood or genital fluids, such as semen and vaginal fluid.
Healthcare professionals can treat HIV with antiretroviral medication. It won’t completely get rid of the virus, but it reduces the amount of HIV in your blood to undetectable levels, so you won’t be able to transmit it sexually.
🦠 Syphilis: Syphilis is a bacterial infection that spreads through sexual contact. When left untreated, it can cause serious complications and even death. But in the early stages, syphilis is treatable with antibiotics. Early on, you might notice sores at the site where syphilis entered your body (which is often the genitals), and they may be small and round, hard and painless.
How to Spot (and Treat) STDs and STIs
STIs usually spread through sex — vaginal, oral or anal — and this occurs through any type of sex involving any gender.
Some STIs spread through any contact between the penis, vagina, mouth or anus, even if there’s no penetration. For example, you can spread genital herpes through direct skin-to-skin contact, which means you can transmit it without penetration. Outside of sexual contact, viruses and infections like HIV and hepatitis B can also spread through sharing needles for injecting drugs or medicines.
While some STIs cause obvious symptoms, many cause no or mild symptoms, so it’s possible to be oblivious to an active infection. In fact, most people with an STI show no symptoms at all.
Additionally, symptoms may appear right away, they might not show up for weeks or months, or they might come and go. Plus, keep this in mind: Even if the symptoms disappear, you may still have an infection.
🔑 If you think one or more sexual partners may have exposed you to an STD, there’s only one way to be sure and learn how to treat it: Go to your health provider and get tested.
If you test positive for an STD, your doctor will prescribe the right medication to help you treat it. Be sure to follow their guidance on foods to avoid during treatment, the right way to take your medication and how many days your treatment should last. When you have a question, don’t just rely on Google. You can always call your doctor to learn anything about STDs.
Safe Sex Resources
To maximize your pleasure, safety during sex is key. Here are some resources for the road to help you learn about contraception, getting tested, prevention and much more.
💡 Sex and COVID-19: This addresses common questions about sex and COVID-19 in two comprehensive fact sheets that feature links to valuable resources on coronavirus symptoms, guidelines, and testing.
💡 CDC STD Fact Sheets: Basic fact sheets answer common questions for various diseases and are in. Plus, they’re available in multiple languages!
💡 CDC STD Prevention: Information about STD prevention, testing, and resources.
💡 Condom Dos & Don’ts: A condom fact sheet that also provides information about dual protection for pregnancy prevention.
💡 The Right Way to Use a Male Condom: An illustration showing the correct way to put on and take off a male condom.
💡 The Right Way to Use a Female Condom: An illustration showing the correct way to insert and remove a female condom.
💡 How to Use a Dental Dam as a Barrier for Oral Sex: An illustrated page showing how to use a dental dam, plus a list of dos and don’ts and how to make a dental dam from a condom.
💡 GetTested: A national STD, HIV, and hepatitis testing locator to find nearby free or low-cost testing.
💡 The Lowdown on How to Prevent STDs: An infographic that provides readers with basic information about STD prevention.
💡 Five Action Steps to Good Sexual Health: A practical roadmap to good sexual health, including tips and advice, real-life scenarios, conversation starters and more.
Remember, folks: No glove, no love. No matter how “clean” someone looks, you can always be at risk for diseases, so get tested first.
Meet Dr. Savita Ginde
Dr. Savita Ginde is an advocate and thought leader for reproductive health and served as Chief Medical Officer of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains for over 13 years. And, until very recently, she served as the Chief Healthcare Officer for STRIDE Community Health Center where she oversaw all of STRIDE’s healthcare services and led their COVID-19 vaccination efforts.