Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are formerly known as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) - the phrase was changed to more accurately represent the wider occurrence of curable infections versus the negative perception of incurable diseases. Many STIs are treatable, but some have no known cure, such as HIV, AIDS, herpes, and others.
STIs and STDs can be spread through sexual contact, but this contact is not limited to just intercourse; infections can occur via:
- Oral sex
- Anal sex
- Vaginal sex
- Sharing needles with an infected drug user
Some STIs can also be passed from mother to child during pregnancy, child birth, and, in some cases, through breastfeeding.
Who is at Risk for STIs?
People who are at risk for STIs are those who have multiple sexual partners, have had sexual relations with an infected partner, do not use condoms, or partake in intravenous drug use.
Sexually Transmitted Infection Prevention:
Many people who have STIs and STDs show no symptoms; using protection and practicing safe sex are vital preventive measures. In addition, regular STI/STD testing is advisable unless you’re in a monogamous relationship.
The only guaranteed way to prevent STIs is through abstinence. Monogamous relationships in which both partners are known to be STI-free are also considered to be safe. Condoms can reduce the risk of some infections but do not fully protect from others (like herpes).
Types of Sexually Transmitted Infections:
Gonorrhea (aka “the clap”) is a bacterial infection that is spread through genital contact but can also be passed from genitals to the throat of a partner; it can also be passed from mother to child during childbirth.
Symptoms: usually develop within 10 days. Some people won’t experience symptoms for a few months, while others will experience no symptoms at all. Symptoms include a discharge from the penis with an increased frequency of urination. Some women may experience vaginal discharge, but not all will. Both men and women may experience burning during urination.
Diagnosis: urine test and/or sample of infected area sent for lab testing
Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that is spread during vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
Symptoms: if symptoms are present, they will generally appear within a week. Men may experience burning during urination and discharge from the penis; women may experience vaginal discharge, vaginal bleeding, abdominal pain sometimes accompanied by fever and nausea, and burning/pain during urination.
Complications: left untreated, chlamydia can also cause PID (see “Gonorrhea Complications" above for more information on PID).
Diagnosis: urine/genital secretion sample
Syphilis is a bacterial infection spread via sores of an infected person to the mucous membranes of the genitals, anus, or mouth; syphilis can also be spread to other parts of the body if broken skin is present. A pregnant woman can pass the bacteria on to her unborn baby, which can cause physical and mental issues.
Symptoms: sores can appear anywhere from 10 days to three months after initial infection. Sores can be painless and sometimes occur inside the body, making detection difficult. Secondary syphilis can occur up to 10 weeks after the first initial sore: it is marked by a rash that can appear on parts of, or all over, the body; other symptoms may include mild fever, fatigue, headaches, sore throat, swollen lymph glands, and will go away without treatment.
Secondary syphilis symptoms can come and go for up to two years. If left untreated, syphilis will enter a latency stage - the infected person is no longer contagious, and most will suffer no further complications; however, approximately one-third of people may enter the tertiary stage of syphilis, which can cause damage to the heart, brain, nervous system, bones, or any other part of the body.
Diagnosis: because the symptoms of syphilis are similar to other STIs, any unusual rash should be examined by a doctor. An official diagnosis may be obtained through any combination of physical exam, lab work, or blood tests.
Treatment: antibiotics; follow-up blood work is advisable to ensure the bacteria is gone.
(Genital) Herpes is a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of herpes: HSV Type 1 typically causes sores on the lip (cold sores) but can also cause genital infections; HSV Type 2 usually causes genital sores but can also cause mouth infections. The virus remains in the body for life: there is no cure for herpes.
Symptoms: many people who contract genital herpes will show no symptoms. Symptoms vary from person to person and will generally appear within the first 10 days, usually consisting of small, red bumps that can develop into open sores/blisters/lesions; the sores will become crusty and will heal with no scarring. Other symptoms may include fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen glands in the groin area, painful urination, or vaginal discharge.
Diagnosis: a viral culture is the most dependable way to diagnose genital herpes, but a blood test can also detect HSV antibodies.
Treatment: during an active episode where sores are present, the infected area should be kept clean and dry to prevent a secondary infection from occurring. Contact with the sores should be avoided, and hands should be washed thoroughly after contact. Avoid sexual contact from the time you first experience symptoms until the sores are completely healed (scabs have formed, fallen off, and new skin has formed over the lesion). There are medications to help prevent future outbreaks, and others that will shorten the duration/lessen the severity of an active outbreak, but, again, it is important to note that there is no cure for herpes.
Human Papillomavirus (aka “genital warts”; HPV) is a group of over 100 strains of virus that can infect the genitals, anus, and linings of the vagina, cervix, or rectum. Certain high-risk strains of HPV can lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, or penis. Low-risk strains of HPV can cause abnormal Pap test results and may result in genital warts (not to be confused with genital herpes as above). HPV can be passed between partners even with the use of a condom. In rare instances, HPV can pass from a mother to her baby during childbirth.
Symptoms: most people with HPV don’t know they’re infected because they are symptom-free; while some will have visible genital warts; and others will experience pre-cancerous changes to the vulva, cervix, anus, or penis. Genital warts can vary in size, shape, and number, and they are generally soft, moist, and flesh-coloured. It may take weeks or months for warts to appear, or they may not appear at all.
Diagnosis: genital warts are diagnosed via visual inspection by a doctor. Most women are diagnosed with HPV after an abnormal Pap test. No HPV tests are available for men at this time.
Treatment: there is no “cure” for HPV, but genital warts can be removed with over-the-counter treatments or with procedures done by a doctor.
Vaccinations: There is now a vaccination available for both men and women. For more information, please visit the Center for Disease Control's website.
Hepatitis B/C involves inflammation of the liver caused by viruses. Hepatitis B (HBV) can pass from mother to baby during childbirth. Hepatitis C (HCV) is more likely to cause chronic liver disease; it is generally spread by contact with infected bodily fluids via shared drug needles or risky sexual activities, particularly anal sex. The most serious complications of Hepatitis are cirrhosis of the liver, cancer of the liver, and/or issues with the immune system.
Symptoms: many people have no symptoms at all. Early symptoms include fever, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Late symptoms may include abdominal pain and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), and some people may experience arthritis-type symptoms.
Diagnosis: blood tests
Treatment: bed rest, healthy diet, avoiding alcohol. People with mild hepatitis will generally begin to feel better in two to three weeks and recover in four to eight weeks. People suffering from chronic hepatitis may receive synthetic protein to improve liver function.
Pubic lice (aka “crabs”) are insects usually found near the genitals but may also be found on other coarse body hair (lice found on the head are head lice, not pubic lice). Pubic lice is usually spread through sexual contact, but may also be spread through contact with an infected person’s linens. Like head lice, pubic lice go through three stages: nits (eggs), nymphs, and adults.
Symptoms: the primary symptom is itching in the genital area; nits (eggs) or crawling lice may be seen (as with head lice).
Diagnosis: examination of pubic hair for nits, nymphs, or adult lice
Treatment: lice shampoo; all bedding/clothing should be laundered in hot water or dry cleaned.
AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is caused by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). HIV attacks the white blood cells that protect the body from illness, leading to AIDS which prevents the body from protecting itself from infections. HIV is found in the bodily fluids of infected males and females and can be spread through vaginal, oral, or anal sex; sharing drug needles; or from an HIV-infected mother to her baby during pregnancy/birth.
HIV can NOT be spread by:
- shaking hands, hugging, or simple kissing, coughs, sneezes, sweat, or tears
- mosquitoes, toilet seats, or donating blood
- eating food handled or prepared by an infected person
- every-day contact with an infected person
Symptoms: many people do not exhibit symptoms when infected by HIV. Initial symptoms may appear as flu-like: fever, headaches, fatigue, and enlarged lymph nodes.
Diagnosis: blood test or oral sample. It may take up to six months for the virus to show up, so it is important to be retested after six months even if your initial test is negative.
Treatment: people need to take care of themselves through diet and exercise, getting adequate rest, and limiting their exposure to illnesses. There are medications available to slow the growth of the virus, but there is no cure for HIV or AIDS.
Additional STI Resources:
Public Health Agency of Canada: facts from the Canadian Government about STIs, contraception, and prevention of STIs.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: information about sexually transmitted diseases, incidences, prevention, and other facts by the CDC.
American Social Health Association: information about STDs, advocacy for STI research, along with the latest research about sexually transmitted diseases.
STI Resources For Teens:
Stop, Think, Be Safe: a site about sexually transmitted diseases, their symptoms, and how to prevent STI's.
Sex, Etc.: site designed and maintained for teens BY teens and devoted to everything a teen could need to know about sex, dating, and STI's.
Teen Source: a sex education site for teens to encourage knowledge, empowerment, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections.
STI Resources For Parents/Educators:
Advocates for Youth: network of parents and professionals that help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health.
Stop, Think, Be Safe (parents): links to other resources about sexual health on the internet. Designed for parents of preteens and teenagers.