The More You Know: Sexually Transmitted Infections

Being curious about sexually transmitted infections is a good thing. Education is an important part of protecting your sexual health and the health of any intimate partners you may have now or in the future.

The first thing to know is that the terms “sexually transmitted infection” (STI) and “sexually transmitted disease” (STD) are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing.

Infections (STIs) are caused by viruses, parasites, or bacteria attacking the body. According to the Mayo Clinic, you may have an infection without noticing symptoms. This is why it is possible to pass an STI to someone else unknowingly. An untreated infection can lead to disease, and diseases present with clear symptoms.

Why Do Sexually Transmitted Infections Spread So Easily?

STIs are primarily spread through sexual contact. An infected person passes the infection to someone else through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. A combination of factors influences the spread of STIs in a community. The fact that many people do not realize they have contracted an STI is a major factor.

How to Prevent Getting or Spreading an STI

Abstinence is the only prevention method that is 100% effective. If you are not practicing abstinence, being in a monogamous long-term relationship with a healthy partner is a reliable method of prevention.

Avoiding oral, vaginal, or anal sex with a new partner until you have both been tested is the next step. Using condoms and dental dams even after testing is the best way to protect yourself.

Vaccinations for some sexually transmitted infections are available. Ask your healthcare provider about vaccines for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and human papillomavirus (HPV).

Can a Sexually Transmitted Infection Be Dangerous to My Long-Term Health?

Sexually transmitted infections can cause long-term health consequences if left untreated. Complications of STIs include the following:

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease

  • Heart disease

  • Certain cancers, such as rectal and cervical cancer

  • Arthritis

  • Pregnancy complications

  • Infertility

  • Diseases of the immune system

Most common sexually transmitted infections respond well to early treatment. Because symptoms do not always appear until the infection is advanced, it is important to get regular STI screenings if you are sexually active.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends yearly testing for most people. Those with high-risk factors, such as having unprotected sex or multiple partners, should be tested every 3 to 6 months. Other risk factors for contracting sexually transmitted infections include misusing alcohol and drugs, especially injected drugs.

Recognizing Sexually Transmitted Infection Symptoms

There are a range of symptoms associated with STIs and STDs. You or your partner may not experience symptoms until the infection has progressed, or you may notice warning signs that something is wrong just a few days after being exposed.

Sexually transmitted infection symptoms can include the following:

  • Pain or burning during urination

  • Lower abdominal pain

  • Unusual vaginal bleeding

  • Unusual or odorous vaginal discharge

  • Penile discharge

  • Swollen or tender lymph nodes, especially in the groin

  • Pain during sex

  • Fever

  • Sores, bumps, or warts on the genitals, in the rectal area, or in the mouth

  • A rash that covers the trunk and may extend to hands or feet

See a doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. And whether you have symptoms or not, schedule a screening if you suspect you have been exposed to an STI.

What Are the Most Common Sexually Transmitted Infections?

All STIs should be taken seriously, even if they are not life-threatening. The long-term health consequences can include infertility and other serious complications.


The CDC reports that chlamydia is the most common curable bacterial sexually transmitted disease in the United States. Chlamydia may infect the cervix or the urethra in a man’s penis. Women are more likely than men to remain asymptomatic.

Chlamydia screening is recommended for everyone who is under the age of 25 years and is sexually active. This STD can cause infertility in both men and women as well as pelvic inflammatory disease.


In a recent year, the CDC estimated there were about 1.6 million new cases of gonorrhea in the United States. More than half of these infections involved people between the age of 15 and 24 years.

Gonorrhea was once easily treated with antibiotics, but an antibiotic-resistant strain of gonorrhea has become a growing health problem. If you notice discharges from your penis or vagina or a burning sensation when you urinate, see your doctor right away and abstain from all types of sexual contact.


Syphilis is one of the most well-known sexually transmitted infections because of its long history. This STI is caused by a bacterium known as Treponema pallidum. It can be transmitted through oral, vaginal, or rectal sex and may lead to serious health problems.

Condom use does not protect against this STI, as syphilis sores often appear in areas a condom does not cover. Complications of syphilis include stroke, meningitis, sexual dysfunction, blindness, and dementia.


Trichomoniasis is the most common type of nonviral sexually transmitted disease in the world. More women are affected by this STI than men. It is often mistaken for a yeast infection because the symptoms are similar.

If you are diagnosed with the disease, your partner must be treated as well. An untreated partner can reinfect you even if they are not experiencing symptoms.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

Studies published by the CDC show that prior to the HPV vaccine, approximately 75% of all sexually active people had human papillomavirus at some point.

Concerns about cervical cancer and HPV are valid, but it is important to note that only some types of HPV can cause cancer. Noncancerous strains of HPV can cause genital warts or no symptoms at all. Symptoms of HPV can be treated, but there is no cure.

Protect Your Sexual Health and Prevent Sexually Transmitted Infections

STIs can be serious health hazards that lead to severe long-term consequences. Leaving an STI untreated may make you infertile or increase your risk for stroke or dementia.

If you are not practicing abstinence, follow all recommendations for safer sex practices, including the use of condoms and other barrier methods. If you suspect you or a partner has been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection, abstain from all sexual activity and see your doctor for testing and treatment.

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