Sexually Transmitted Diseases & Infections (STDs & STIs)
What are sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)?
Sexually transmitted diseases, commonly called STDs, are also known as sexually transmitted infections (STIs). You can get an STD from any kind of sexual activity that involves the mouth, anus, vagina or penis.
STDs are serious illnesses that need treatment. Some, like the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), cannot be cured and can be life-threatening without treatment.
What are the types of STDs?
Some sexually transmitted infections include:
- Genital herpes.
- Genital warts.
- Hepatitis B.
- Gonorrhea (sometimes called "clap").
- Trichomoniasis (sometimes called "trick").
Who is at risk for an STD?
Anyone who is sexually active is at risk for an STD. Drug use and using other substances can increase the likelihood of catching an STD. Shared needles can spread STDs. Also, if you’re high, you’re less likely to practice safe sex.
Secrecy around sexuality also raises the risk. People who feel stigma (shame or embarrassment) about STDs may be less likely to seek treatment. They may not want to tell anyone they have an STD. But without treatment, people keeping spreading the STD to others. Being open about your symptoms and sexual history is important for the health and well-being of you and your partners.
How common are STDs?
Every year, around 20 million new STD infections occur. About half of them happen to people ages 15 to 24. Gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis are the most commonly discussed STDs and syphilis in pregnancy may lead to congenital syphilis if left untreated.
What's expedited partner therapy?
Expedited partner therapy (EPT) is where your healthcare provider gives you a prescription for your partner without examining the partner when you’re diagnosed with chlamydia or gonorrhea. Typically the healthcare provider would wait to examine a patient before providing a prescription, but the logical assumption is that if you have the STD, then your partner probably does as well. This prevents reinfection and stops additional transmission as soon as possible.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes an STD?
STDs develop when various bacteria, viruses or parasites infect your body. People share these microorganisms through bodily fluids during sexual activity — usually vaginal, oral or anal sex. STDs like syphilis can be transmitted to an unborn child
Some STDs may be present in infected blood. People who share infected drug needles can pass on STDs.
What are STD symptoms?
You might not have any symptoms with an STD. Get tested regularly if you are sexually active. You can have (and pass on) an STD without even knowing it. The CDC recommends a gonorrhea and chlamydia screen for people younger than 25.
If you do have symptoms, they may include:
Genital symptoms: (Some patients may be asymptomatic.)
- Bumps, sores or warts on or near the penis, vagina, mouth or anus.
- Swelling, redness or severe itching near the penis or vagina.
- Discharge from the penis.
- Vaginal discharge that has a bad odor, causes irritation or is a different color or amount than usual.
- Vaginal bleeding that’s not your period.
- Painful sex.
- Skin rash.
- Weight loss, diarrhea, night sweats.
- Aches, pains, fever and chills.
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes).
- Painful urination or frequent urination.
Is an STD contagious?
Yes, if you have an STD, you can pass it on through sexual contact. That’s why it’s important to see a healthcare provider and get treatment right away. Once the STD goes away, you can resume your sex life.
You don’t have to worry about passing an STD through casual contact. Shaking hands or sharing a bathroom won’t lead to STDs.
Diagnosis and Tests
How do I know if I have an STD?
You may have uncomfortable symptoms, such as genital itching, burning or discharge.
Make an appointment to see your healthcare provider and explain that you think you might have an STD. Your healthcare provider can examine you to figure out if you have an infection. They’ll ask about your symptoms and sexual history — answer honestly, so you can get the help you need.
Don’t put off seeing your provider. If you do have an STD, treatment can:
- Cure many STDs.
- Lessen the symptoms.
- Reduce your likelihood of spreading the disease.
- Help you get healthy and stay healthy.
What’s STD testing like?
The STD test you need depends on the type of STD you may have. Your provider will talk to you about what tests you need. STD testing includes:
- Urine test.
- Cheek swab.
- Blood test.
- Exam of your genital area.
- Testing a fluid sample from sores.
- Testing discharge or cell samples from your body (usually the vagina, urethra, cervix, penis, anus or throat).
People who get an STD diagnosis may feel embarrassed or ashamed. But STDs can happen to anyone — millions of people have them. And most people will get an STD at least once in their life. If you’re experiencing anxiety or stress about the STD diagnosis, consider reaching out to a friend, loved one or mental health professional for support.
Management and Treatment
What are the treatments for STDs?
Antibiotics can treat many STDs. These medicines are either a shot or an oral medication (you take it by mouth).
How soon will the symptoms of an STD go away?
If your provider gave you antibiotics to treat an STD, you should start feeling better within a few days. Make sure to complete all the medicine as directed, even if you are feeling better. And never share medicines — don’t give your medicine to others, and don’t take someone else’s medication for your symptoms.
Can STDs be cured?
Many STDs can be cured. But some, like HIV, require lifelong care and treatment. And you can get an STD again. If you engage in risky sexual behavior (multiple partners, not using condoms), you risk getting re-infected.
What if I have an STD, and I’m pregnant?
If you’re pregnant, talk to your healthcare provider right away. They will discuss treatment options to keep you and your baby safe.
What is expedited partner therapy?
Expedited partner therapy (EPT) is where your healthcare provider gives you a prescription for your partner without examining your partner when you’re diagnosed with chlamydia or gonorrhea. Typically the healthcare provider would wait to examine a patient before providing a prescription, but the logical assumption is that if you have the STD, then your partner probably does as well. This prevents reinfection and stops additional transmission as soon as possible.
How can I protect myself from STIs?
Only abstaining from sex (abstinence, or not having sex) offers complete protection from STIs. If you are sexually active, make sure to:
- Use a latex condom whenever you have any kind of sex. Condoms are especially important if you have multiple sex partners.
- Have sex with one person (monogamy). Or limit the number of sexual partners. Each new partner raises your risk of catching an STI.
- Choose sex partners carefully. Don’t have sex if you suspect your partner has an STI.
- Get checked for STIs regularly. Doing so helps prevent spreading the infection to other people. And ask any new sex partner to get tested before having sex for the first time.
- Avoid alcohol or drugs before having sex. People who are drunk or high may engage in risky sexual behaviors, which can lead to an STD.
- Learn the signs and symptoms of STIs. If you notice symptoms, get treatment quickly.
- Educate yourself about STIs. The more you know, the better you can protect yourself and your partners.
If I have an STD, how can I prevent spreading it to others?
Take steps to protect yourself and others:
- Don’t have sex until you see a healthcare provider and receive treatment. You can resume sex when your healthcare provider says it’s OK.
- Follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for treatment.
- Return to your healthcare provider to get rechecked.
- Be sure your sex partner or partners also receive treatment.
- Use condoms whenever you have sex, especially with new partners.
Who should get tested for HIV?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone ages 13 to 64 get screened regularly for HIV. Some national guidelines recommend screening up to age 75. There are increased rates of HIV infection in older adults.
If you’ve ever received treatment for STDs, the CDC recommends you get tested for HIV if you have any STD symptoms — even if you’re not at high risk for HIV.
Should I get the HPV vaccine?
The human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common viral STI in the U.S. People with HPV may have no symptoms, or they may develop warts or bumps around the genitals. High risk HPV can even cause cervical cancer.
But there is a vaccine to prevent HPV and genital warts. Healthcare providers advise children ages 11 to 12 to receive it, because it’s most effective before you become sexually active. The vaccine is recommended for everyone up to age 26, and updated information shows people up to the age of 45 years may benefit from the HPV vaccine. Talk to your healthcare provider to see if it’s right for you.
How often should I get tested for STIs?
Young people less than 25 years should be screened yearly. Regular testing helps find and treat STDs you may not even know you have. Talk to your healthcare provider about a testing schedule that makes sense for you. Some providers recommend once a year or before having sex with a new partner.
Outlook / Prognosis
What’s the outlook for people with an STD?
Most STDs or STIs go away after treatment. Some may require lifelong management with medications.
Do STDs cause complications?
STDs can cause lifelong complications if left untreated. Untreated HIV can lead to AIDS, which can be fatal. Untreated syphilis can progress to damage your organs and nervous system and infect an unborn child.
STD complications for women and anyone assigned female at birth include:
- Pelvic inflammatory disease.
- Ectopic pregnancy.
- Chronic pelvic pain.
In men and people assigned male at birth, untreated STDs can lead to:
- Infections in the urethra.
- Swollen, sore testicles.
How can I take care of myself if I have an STD?
If your healthcare provider has diagnosed you with an STD, take steps to keep yourself healthy:
- Take all of the medication your provider prescribed as instructed.
- Don’t have sex while you’re getting STD treatment. Wait until your healthcare provider gives you the all-clear.
- Let your sexual partner or partners know you have an STD so that they can talk to their healthcare provider about treatment.
- When you resume having sex, be sure to use a condom every time.
What should I ask my healthcare provider?
If you’re sexually active, or you’ve had an STD, ask your healthcare provider:
- How can I prevent STIs and STDs?
- Will the STD cause any complications or problems in the future?
- Should I get checked regularly for STDs?
- Should my partners get checked?
- What type of treatment do I need?
- When will the STD go away?
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Sexually transmitted diseases and infections (STDs and STIs) are common. If you feel uncomfortable burning or itching around your genitals, or other signs of a possible STD, talk to your healthcare provider. Antibiotics can usually treat the infection successfully. Most of the time, the STD is cured without long-term complications. In some instances, like with HIV, you may need lifelong medication. Using a condom when you’re sexually active can prevent STDs.