What are sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)?

The term “sexually transmitted diseases” or “STDs” represents a group of more than 25 different diseases that can be passed from one person to another through sexual contact. An STD is a disease/infection you can get or give to someone else by having oral, vaginal or anal sex or other intimate contact with him/her.

How common are STDs?

STDs are very common in the United States. There are 19 million new cases each year in the United States. By the age of 25, 1 in 2 sexually active people will contract an STD. 1 in 4 teenagers has an STD. In the United States, there are approximately 2.3 million new chlamydia infections a year. Over 40 million (1 in 5) people have genital herpes and 20 million have genital warts (HPV). These numbers surpass the 1 million cases of HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus).

What are the typical symptoms of STDs?

Many STDs have no noticeable symptoms. In fact, a very common symptom of an STD is no symptoms at all. Having symptoms is a good thing because they let you know that something is wrong. When they do occur, typical STD symptoms for women may include unusual vaginal discharge (flow), sores, bumps, burning when urinating, and redness or itching around the vaginal area. Typical symptoms for men may include discharge from the penis, burning when urinating, and sores, bumps, or redness on or around the penis.

How are STDs transmitted?

STDs can be transmitted through oral, anal, or vaginal sex. They can be transmitted from partner to partner with or without visible signs or symptoms. Many people can pass an STD to a sex partner without knowing it. Some STDs can be passed without having intercourse; they can be passed through skin-to-skin contact. Skin-to-skin contact is the rubbing or friction that takes place during intercourse or foreplay. This contact leads to tiny little cuts (micro tears) in the genital area which allow the STD agent (virus or bacteria) to enter the body. The skin is the largest organ in the body and is a protective barrier; however, when broken, foreign agents can enter the body.

Can herpes be passed when there are no symptoms?

Yes, it is possible to infect someone with herpes, even when you don’t have any symptoms. Once thought to be transmitted only when sores were present, recent research has shown that herpes simplex virus (HSV) can be passed even when no visible signs are present.

Can I get STDs from a towel or a toilet seat?

Most STDs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, and genital warts, are spread only through direct sexual contact with an infected person. Crabs (pubic lice) or scabies, which are often sexually transmitted, can be passed through contact with infected items like clothes, sheets, or towels. It is highly unlikely for a person to contract an STD from a toilet seat.

What should I do if I think I have an STD?

If you think you have an STD, see a health care provider immediately. Seeking treatment early will help to minimize the long-term effects of most STDs. For gonorrhea and chlamydia infections, avoid sexual contact until you are cured. Make sure your partner(s) get tested and treated too. Otherwise, you can get re-infected. Some clinics can give you medication to take home to your partner(s). Viral STDs such as herpes and genital warts are not curable but medications are available for their treatment and management. For STD clinic locations in Los Angeles County, call the Los Angeles STD Hotline at (800) 758-0880 oir visit our clinics section. For all other areas, contact your local or state health department for a clinic near you. Most STD clinics provide services for free or at low cost.

Can I get an STD more than once?

You are not “immune” to an STD if you have had it before. STDs caused by bacteria (chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis) can be treated and cured, but you can get them again if exposed. Viral STDs (such as herpes and genital warts) cannot be cured and may remain in your body forever. People who have had Hepatitis B in the past and “cleared” it, develop immunity to that infection.

Can all STDs be cured?

Bacterial STDs like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, can be easily treated and cured. Viral STDs like herpes, genital warts, and HIV are incurable, but there are treatments available to lessen the severity of the disease. Vaccines are available to prevent the onset of certain STDs such as Hepatitis B and HPV. For vaccines to be effective, a person has to be vaccinated before they are exposed to the infection. For this reason, it is recommended that most people get vaccinated against these infections at an early age.

Is it true that if I get tested for HIV, I get tested for all STDs?

No. Each STD, including HIV, has its own test. Talk to your doctor or other health provider to make sure you’re getting the test you need.

Can I test myself for STDs?

Currently, there are no home tests for STDs available in Los Angeles. The only way to know if you have an STD is to see a healthcare provider and get tested. See our clinics section for free and low cost testing.

Do I have to go to a clinic to get my STD treated?

Yes. It is very important to go to a clinic or other healthcare facility to get tested and treated for your STD. Avoid online treatments of STDs. Some websites offer STD treatment for a fee. Please note that these are not approved by the FDA and do not cure or treat the infection. For proper treatment and care, please see your doctor or other healthcare provider. For a list of STD clinics in Los Angeles County, please call the STD Hotline at 1-800-758-0880 or visit our clinics section. For all other areas, contact your local or state health department for a clinic near you. Most STD clinics provide services for free or at low-cost.

How serious are the complications of STDs?

If left untreated, STDs can lead to major health problems. HIV can lead to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). Other STDs can cause infertility, tubal pregnancy, pelvic inflammatory disease, and serious complications in newborns. HPV can lead to cervical cancer in some women if not diagnosed in time. For this reason, it is very important for women to get regular pap smears. The onset of STD complications varies from person to person. Generally speaking, complications from STDs can occur within months to years after infection.

Are women at greater risk for STDs?

Yes, women are at greater risk for many STDs, including HIV. Women are biologically more susceptible than men to becoming infected if exposed to an STD. STDs are also less likely to produce symptoms in women, and therefore are more difficult to diagnose until serious problems develop, such as PID (Pelvic Inflammatory Disease).

What is the best protection against STDs?

All STDs are preventable. Abstinence (not having sex) is the only sure way to prevent an STD. If you are having sex, correctly using male (latex or polyurethane) or female (polyurethane) condoms can significantly reduce the risk of getting an STD. Limiting your number of sex partners and number of risky sexual encounters can also reduce your risk of getting an STD. See Prevention

What is the link between HIV and other STDs?

Many STDs increase the risk of HIV transmission. syphilis and herpes cause ulcerations or sores which can provide HIV with easy access into the bloodstream. Chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomoniasis infections lead to inflammation. Inflammation causes an increase in CD4+cells, cells targeted by HIV. This is believed to increase a person’s chances of becoming infected with HIV if exposed. People with an STD such as syphilis, genital herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, or trichomoniasis are 3 to 5 times more likely to contract HIV, if exposed, than people who are not infected with an STD.

I've just been diagnosed with an STD. Does this mean my partner has lied or cheated on me?

No, not necessarily. Not everyone will have symptoms of an STD even though they are infected. A partner can pass a disease to another without ever knowing s/he has had something. You, the unfortunate current partner, may be the one that actually ends up with symptoms. You may also have received your STD from a previous partner years ago and are just now seeing the signs of the disease.

How can I tell if my partner has an STD?

In most cases, you cannot tell by looking if someone has an STD. STDs often do not have visible symptoms.

If I get a pap smear regularly, wouldn't the doctor tell me if I had an STD?

No, not necessarily. A pap smear is looking for cancerous or pre-cancerous cells. STD exams are unique tests that look for specific STDs. They may take the form of a blood, culture, or urine test. Be sure and ask your doctor for the name of the test you want done (for instance, chlamydia, syphilis, or HIV).