Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections generally acquired by sexual contact. The organisms that cause sexually transmitted diseases may pass from person to person in blood, semen, or vaginal and other bodily fluids.
Some of these infections can also be transmitted nonsexually, such as from mother to infant during pregnancy or childbirth, or through blood transfusions or shared needles.
It's possible to contract sexually transmitted diseases from people who seem perfectly healthy — people who, in fact, aren't even aware of being infected. Many of the infections transmitted through sex cause no symptoms, which is one of the reasons experts prefer the term "sexually transmitted infections" to "sexually transmitted diseases." The symptoms of several sexually transmitted infections are also easy to mistake for those of other conditions, so the correct diagnosis may be delayed.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have a wide range of signs and symptoms. That's why they may go unnoticed until complications occur or a partner is diagnosed. Signs and symptoms that might indicate an STI include:
Signs and symptoms may appear a few days to three months after exposure, depending on the organism. They may resolve in a few weeks, even without treatment, but progression with later complications — or recurrence — sometimes occurs.
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with a doctor for STI counseling and, if appropriate, for screening tests:
Sexually transmitted infections can be caused by:
Sexual activity plays a role in spreading many other infectious agents, although it's possible to be infected without sexual contact. Examples include the hepatitis A and B viruses, shigella, cryptosporidium and Giardia lamblia.
Anyone who is sexually active risks exposure to a sexually transmitted infection to some degree. Factors that may increase that risk include:
According to a surveillance report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sexually transmitted infections are more common among certain groups, such as young people, men who have sex with men and minority communities. The theory is that potential sex partners often belong to social networks made up of people of similar age, location and background. Within these overlapping networks, couples regularly form, split up and find new partners. If one STI is making its way through such a network, there's a good chance that others are, too.
Transmission from mother to infant
Preparing for your appointment
Not many people feel comfortable sharing the details of their sexual experiences, but the doctor's office is one place where such information is essential to appropriate care.
What you can do
Some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
If your sexual history and current signs and symptoms suggest that you have an STI, laboratory tests can identify the cause and detect coinfections you might also have contracted.
Prompt treatment can help prevent the complications of some STIs. Since many people in the early stages of an STI experience no symptoms, screening for STIs is especially important in preventing complications.
Possible complications include:
Treatments and drugs
STIs caused by bacteria are generally easy to treat. Viral infections can be managed but not always cured. If you're pregnant and have an STI, prompt treatment can prevent or reduce the risk of infection of your baby. Treatment usually consists of one of the following, depending on the infection.
Partner notification and preventive treatment
Official, confidential partner notification effectively limits the spread of STIs, particularly syphilis and HIV. The practice also steers those at risk toward appropriate counseling and treatment. And since you can contract some STIs more than once, partner notification reduces your risk of getting reinfected.
There are several ways to avoid or reduce your risk of sexually transmitted infections.
Coping and support
It's traumatic to find out you have an STI. You might be angry if you feel you've been betrayed, or ashamed if there's a chance you infected others. At worst, an STI can cause chronic illness and death, even with the best care in the world. Between those extremes is a host of other potential losses — trust between partners, plans to have children, and joyful embrace of your sexuality and its expression.
Here's how you can cope:
Last Updated: 2011-02-24
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