Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) also known as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are common infections among sexually active people. They are usually spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Although STIs are a frequent cause of concern in the general population and among health care practitioners, there are quite a lot misconceptions regarding STIs. To help you gain a better understanding of STIs and how you could prevent and treat them, here are some basic facts you need to know.
What are STIs?
STIs are infections caused by pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites that are usually spread by sexual contact. STIs can also be spread from mother to child during pregnancy and childbirth. There are more than 30 pathogens known to cause STIs but only 8 of them are linked to the largest global incidence of infections. Four of these STIs are curable and these are gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, and trichomoniasis while the remaining four are incurable and these are hepatitis B, herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), and HIV.
Who gets STIs?
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 1 million people are infected with an STI each day. Furthermore, according to a report published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases, there was an estimate of 110 million STIs among women and men in the United States in 2008. Nearly half of these infections were acquired by young men and women between 15 and 24 years of age. Most of these infections were caused by HPV and many of them were asymptomatic.
STIs usually don’t cause any symptoms, at least not in the early stages of an infection. This makes it more likely for an infected person to spread the infection to other people. When symptoms do occur they can easily be mistaken for other conditions such as urinary tract infections or a yeast infection. The symptoms will also depend on the type of infection at hand. Some of the most common symptoms of an STI are:
- Blisters, sores, and warts around the genital area.
- Vaginal or penile discharge that may have a foul odor.
- Itching in the genital area.
- Pain during sex.
- Bleeding after sex.
- General discomfort in the genital area.
- Pelvic inflammatory disease.
- Cancers of the reproductive system.
When treated early on, some STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea won’t compromise your overall and reproductive health. But other STIs that can’t be cured can have a strong effect on your health. For instance, HIV infections may lead to AIDS which is a disease causing your immune system to shut down and your body can become extremely susceptible to secondary infections. STIs may also have worse outcomes for women than they do for men. Some of the common complications of untreated STIs are infertility, pregnancy complications, organ damage, cancer (especially cervical cancer caused by HPV), and even death.
Most STIs can easily be prevented by using condoms every time you have sex. According to a review published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, condoms are effective in preventing the transmission of HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea, and other STIs. The female condom is equally effective as the male condom in preventing infection with common STIs. However, condoms cannot protect you from getting and HPV infection as the virus can be spread from skin to skin contact on areas not covered by the condom. Other ways to minimize your chances of getting STIs is through abstinence or monogamy. Limiting the number of sexual partners can also reduce your chances of becoming infected. Vaccines are available for some strains of HPV and hepatitis B and these can also reduce the likelihood of infections.
Testing for STIs is important for sexually active people because, as explained earlier, many STIs don’t cause any symptoms. Asking your doctor for an STI screening test is important because the earlier an STI is discovered, the better the outcomes. Bacterial STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea are successfully treatable with antibiotics. However, health care experts are worried about the rise in resistance of gonorrhea to current antibiotics meaning that the treatment options are becoming less effective. For STIs caused by viruses, treatment options are antiviral medication for HIV and herpes, and immune system modulators for hepatitis B. These treatments can’t really cure the disease but can make the symptoms manageable.
Sexually transmitted infections are quite common among sexually active people. Because most don’t cause any symptoms in the early stages of infections, it is important to start STI screening soon after becoming sexually active. In this way, you lower the chances of spreading STIs to your sexual partners, but also increase your chances of greater recovery. Some STIs such as HIV are a particularly great cause of concern because they are incurable and can be deadly. This is why it so important to know more about STIs and how you can prevent and treat them.