How to Prevent Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections that are spread by sexual contact. Except for colds and flu, STDs are the most common contagious (easily spread) diseases in the United States, with millions of new cases of STDs each year.

About Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Anyone who has vaginal, anal or oral sex with another person may get an STD. People with an STD may not know they have it. Often there are no symptoms. But that does not mean that it is not affecting your health.

Gonorrhea and Chlamydia
Gonorrhea and chlamydia are caused by bacteria. These two diseases often occur at the same time.

Many women and men with gonorrhea and chlamydia have few or no symptoms. If symptoms do appear, however, they may appear from two days to three weeks after contact with an infected person. Symptoms may include:

  1. A discharge from a woman’s vagina or a man’s penis
  2. Painful or frequent urination
  3. Pain in the pelvis or abdomen
  4. Burning or itching in the vaginal area
  5. Redness or swelling of the vulva
  6. Vaginal bleeding between periods

Both chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women. PID is an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. It is a common cause of infertility. Symptoms of PID are fever, nausea and vomiting, and pain in the abdomen. It can lead to long-term pelvic pain.

Human Papillomavirus
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common STDs in the United States. More than 100 types of this virus have been identified.
Like many STDs, there often are no signs of genital HPV. However, a few types of HPV cause warts. For women, these warts can appear on the vulva, vagina, cervix and anus. For men, they can appear on the penis, scrotum, anus or anywhere else in the genital area.

Some types of HPV are linked to cancer in both women and men.

Syphilis is caused by a type of bacteria called a spirochete. If not treated, syphilis can infect many parts of the body, causing major health problems-even death.
Most people have no symptoms of syphilis. The first sign of syphilis may be a painless, smooth sore at the site of the infection. Syphilis is easily treated in this early stage. Other symptoms of syphilis are warts and a rash.

Genital Herpes
Millions of Americans carry the genital herpes virus. The most common symptom of herpes is a sore on or around the genitals. These sores appear as red spots, bumps or blisters. They can last from a few days to a few weeks.

The sores may come back at any time, usually in the same place they first occurred.

HIV Infection
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The rate of HIV infection is increasing most rapidly among women who have sex with men.

HIV weakens the immune system, which may lead to AIDS. With AIDS, a person’s immune system is so weakened that other life-threatening conditions, such as infections or cancer, can occur.

Trichomonas vaginitis is a microscopic parasite that is spread through sex. It can be cured with treatment. Many people have no symptoms of trichomonas.

Hepatitis is a serious infection of the liver caused by a virus. Two types of hepatitis, B and C, can be sexually transmitted. They can be spread by direct contact with the body fluids (blood, semen, vaginal fluids) of an infected person. There is a vaccine available to prevent infection with hepatitis B. There is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C infection.

How to Protect Yourself from STDs

  1. Know your sexual partners and limit their number — Your partner’s sexual history is as important as your own. The more partners you or your partners have, the higher your risk of getting an STD.
  2. Use a latex condom — Using a latex condom every time you have vaginal, oral or anal sex decreases the chances of infection.
  3. Avoid risky sex practices — Sexual acts that tear or break the skin carry a higher risk of STDs. Anal sex poses a high risk because tissues in the rectum break easily.
  4. Get immunized — A vaccination is available that will help prevent hepatitis.

Finally …
Every woman should know how to protect herself and her partners from STDs. If you think you have an STD, seek medical treatment to avoid long-term health problems.

This excerpt from ACOG’s Patient Education Pamphlet is provided for your information. It is not medical advice and should not be relied upon as a substitute for visiting your doctor. If you need medical care, have any questions, or wish to receive the full text of this Patient Education Pamphlet, please contact your obstetrician-gynecologist.

To ensure the information is current and accurate, ACOG titles are reviewed every 18 months

Copyright © November 2007 The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists