STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) | Primary Care | Loyola Medicine

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Overview and Facts about Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections that are passed from one person to another through unprotected sexual contact. More than 30 different bacteria, viruses and parasites can be transmitted primarily through sexual activity.

Although both men and women can be infected, women tend to suffer more serious STD complications than men.

Among the most serious STD women’s health complications are a pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy (pregnancy outside of the uterus), infertility and chronic pelvic pain.

Common STDs in women include:

  • Chlamydia
  • Genital herpes
  • Gonorrhea
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Signs and Symptoms of Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Some STDs may not cause signs or symptoms, especially early on, or symptoms may be mild or mistaken for other conditions such as a urinary tract infection or vaginal infection. Even without any symptoms, someone can pass the infection to their sexual partners. 

For chlamydia, symptoms may include:

  • Abnormal yellow vaginal discharge
  • Pain or burning during urination
  • Rectal bleeding, discharge or pain
  • Vaginal bleeding between periods

The signs and symptoms of genital herpes may recur, off and on, for years. When these symptoms for genital herpes do occur, it is sometimes called “having an outbreak”:

  • Feeling of pressure in the abdomen
  • Flu-like symptoms, including fever
  • Pain or itching in the genital area
  • Scabs as any bumps or blisters heal
  • Small, red bumps or blisters where the virus entered the body (such as the mouth, vagina or rectum)

Gonorrhea symptoms may include:

  • Abdominal or pelvic pain
  • Increased vaginal discharge
  • Painful intercourse
  • Painful urination
  • Vaginal bleeding between periods, such as after vaginal intercourse

For HPV, most people with this condition never develop symptoms or health problems. Women may learn they have HPV during a routine Pap test.

This test can detect abnormal cell changes that are likely caused by HPV. There are more than 100 types of HPV; some cause genital warts, while others (high-risk HPV) can lead to certain cancers such as cervical cancer.

Causes and Risk Factors of Sexually Transmitted Diseases

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly 20 million new STDs occur every year in the United States.

STDs are caused by bacterial or viral infections that are spread from person to person through infected blood, semen or vaginal fluids during unprotected sexual contact.

The kind of sexual contact includes vaginal, anal and oral sex, as well as genital skin-to-skin contact.

Tests and Diagnosis of Sexually Transmitted Diseases

A physical exam and the following laboratory tests are used to diagnose STDs:

  • Fluid or tissue sample, which examines the fluid or discharge from an infected place on the body
  • Pelvic and physical exam, which looks for signs of infection, such as warts, rashes, or discharge
  • Urine test, which can diagnose such STDs as chlamydia and gonorrhea

Treatment and Care of Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Treatment depends on the type of STD. Chlamydia and gonorrhea can be cured with antibiotics.

While there’s no cure for genital herpes, antiviral medications can prevent or shorten outbreaks. In addition, daily use of antiviral medication for herpes can also reduce the likelihood of transmission to partners.

For HPV, there’s no cure for the virus itself, but treatments are available for the health problems that HPV can cause, such as genital warts and cervical cancer.