The choices we make from day-to-day can have a larger impact on our lives than we might expect. Something as ordinary and seemingly inconsequential as having a one-night stand can have a potentially devastating, lifelong impact on your health. Anything that increases your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) can potentially harm your health and even shorten your lifespan.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are common and preventable. While some are curable, others can require lifelong treatment.
Untreated STIs can have serious long-term effects including infertility, chronic pain, and death.
Even with treatment, some STIs can cause serious long-term medical problems.
You can prevent the spread of STIs by getting tested and practicing safer sex. Using barrier protection — such as condoms and dental dams — decreases your risk of catching or spreading an STI.
What are sexually transmitted infections?
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) — infections that can cause sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) — are viral, bacterial, and parasitic infections that spread through sexual contact.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are 500 million new cases of the four most common STIs worldwide every year. The WHO also estimates that 1 million people contract STIs every day. STIs are common throughout the world and affect sexually active people of any age, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
In many cases, STIs do not cause immediate symptoms and may remain asymptomatic for years. However, even though you are not experiencing symptoms these infections can cause serious damage throughout the body. Without proper diagnosis and treatment, STIs can lead to lifelong health problems that can significantly decrease your life expectancy. Even with proper treatment, STIs can still wreak havoc on your body.
How STIs spread
Untreated STIs — including asymptomatic infections — are easily spread through sexual contact. STIs can be spread during sexual activity because viruses, bacteria, and parasites are present in bodily fluids, including saliva, semen, blood, and urine.
Infections can occur when bodily fluids come into contact with mucus membranes — including the inside of the mouth, vagina, and anus. Small cuts or abrasions in mucus membranes also contribute to STI spread. Vaginal or anal penetration is most commonly associated with STI spread, but oral sex and other sexual activities can also result in exposure to body fluids and STIs.
The most common STIs
While dozens of STIs exist, eight of them are the most common. Some are curable infections and others require lifelong treatment.
|Common curable STIs|
|Common chronic STIs (requiring lifelong treatment)|
Symptoms of STIs
Some STIs can cause immediate symptoms, while others can remain dormant for years before problems arise. Just because you do not have any symptoms of an STI does not mean that you do not have an STI or that you cannot infect someone else. In men, for example, chlamydia rarely causes symptoms, but asymptomatic infected men can infect women.
Most STI symptoms tend to primarily affect the genitals and the groin, but they can also affect organs throughout the body. Different STIs can cause different symptoms. However, many STIs share many symptoms in common. Common symptoms of STIs include:
- Painful, burning, or frequent urination
- Itching affecting the genitals
- Discharge from the penis or vagina
- Bleeding from the penis or vagina
- Warts, blisters, or ulcers on the skin or in and around the vagina, mouth, or anus
- Pain during sex
Some STIs can also cause flu-like symptoms, diarrhea, night sweats, unexplained weight loss, and jaundice (yellow skin and eyes).
Long-term effects of STIs
Early diagnosis and treatment of STIs can cure or control infections before they cause any long-term harm. However, untreated STIs can cause serious long-term damage to the body, including infertility, sexual dysfunction, cancer, brain damage, and death. Untreated STIs can also be spread to others through sexual contact, or can be transmitted from a pregnant mother to their child. Diagnosing and treating STIs is essential for your health, the health of your sexual partners, and, ultimately, the community at large.
Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis are all curable STIs. They are caused by bacteria and parasites and are usually curable with antibiotics, but if left untreated can cause devastating damage to the body. Syphilis is perhaps the most devastating STI when left untreated. It can damage the entire body, including the brain. Syphilis is curable if treated, but the damage caused by advanced syphilis is permanent.
Viral STIs are incurable and cause symptoms that can persist for the rest of your life. HPV can cause cancer of the genitals, cervix, or mouth in addition to genital warts. Herpes can cause recurring, painful outbreaks of blisters. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS — acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. Hepatitis B can cause liver damage or liver cancer.
STIs and fertility
Some STIs can affect men and women differently. In women, many STIs can cause dangerous complications, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID is a life-threatening infection that can cause infertility and lead to chronic pelvic pain. Men can also suffer infertility due to testicular damage from STIs.
Some STIs are curable with proper treatment, while others can require lifelong treatment to keep the infection under control and help prevent the spread of the disease. The most important thing to remember about STI treatment is that you should seek treatment at the first sign of symptoms — either your symptoms or your partner’s.
Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis are all curable STIs. Treatment can be as simple as a single penicillin injection, but often requires a course of antibiotics. Viral STIs are more difficult to treat. Newer, more effective treatments are available for viral STIs, but infection with chronic hepatitis B, herpes, HPV, or HIV still requires long-term treatment. Fortunately, modern treatments can significantly decrease or eliminate symptoms and also prevent transmission of the virus to sexual partners.
Lower your risk of STIs
Sexual transmission of bacteria, viruses, and parasites can be prevented — but you must take proper steps to lower your risk of getting an infection or spreading an infection to someone else. Your health and possibly your life are at risk if you do not protect yourself from STIs.
- Use protection. Use barrier protection during anal, vaginal, or oral sex. Wearing a condom or using a dental dam can help prevent STI transmission.
- Talk to your partner. Discussing STIs with your partner, especially a casual partner, can be difficult, but it is necessary. Don’t be afraid to ask your partner about their STI history or whether they have been tested for STIs. Be open about whether you have been tested or have ever had an STI.
- Get tested. If you are sexually active, then you should be tested for STIs. For your own health and the safety of your sexual partners, it is important to be regularly tested for HIV and other STIs. You should also insist that any sexual partner has been tested as well.
- Get treatment. If you are having symptoms of an STI, you should abstain from sexual activity and seek medical treatment immediately. If you have had symptoms in the past and were never tested or treated, then you should seek medical treatment as well.
- Get vaccinated. Currently, the only vaccines available to prevent STIs include the hepatitis B vaccine and the HPV vaccine. These are commonly given during childhood today, but most adults over age 30 are not vaccinated.
Always consider the risks
Small choices can have major consequences. It’s easy to throw caution to the wind when you are caught in a passionate moment, but that is exactly the time when caution may be most important. Casual sex can be fun, but it does increase your risk of contracting an STI. Mutual trust is important in a healthy sexual relationship, but you cannot have trust without openness and honesty.
Don’t take risks with your health. Instead, take a moment to consider the possible consequences of having sex and choose safer sex practices when you decide to have sex. It is important to live in the moment and make the most out of life, but don’t take unnecessary risks when it comes to STIs.
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