Sexually transmitted diseases, commonly called STDs, are diseases that are usually, but not always, spread by being sexually intimate with someone who already has one. An STD is most frequently transmitted through an exchange of bodily fluids. That is true for common conditions like HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhea. In other situations, an STD can be spread through skin-to-skin contact, just like MRSA, Herpes and HPV. You can also be infected with trichomoniasis, also known as “trich,” through contact with damp or moist objects such as towels, wet clothing, or toilet seats, as well as through sexual contact. Occasionally, STDs are transmitted to babies while they are in the womb or at the time of childbirth. Many expectant mothers are not aware of the dangers that an STD can pose to their baby.

In recent years many experts in this area of public health have suggested replacing STD with a new term called, sexually transmitted infection, or STI. The reason for this change is that the concept of “disease,” as in STD, suggests a clear medical problem, usually with clear and obvious symptoms leading to a diagnosis. However, several of the most common STDs have no signs at all or mild symptoms that can be easily overlooked. So the sexually transmitted virus or bacteria can be described as creating “infection,” which may or may not result in “disease.” This is true of chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and human papillomavirus (HPV), to name a few.

STDs and STIs are very serious and if you are not taking precautions, it is very easy to become infected. According to the American Social Health Organization, one out of four teens in the United States becomes infected with an STD each year. By the age of 25, half of all sexually active young adults will have had an STD. Some STDs, like HIV and Herpes, cannot be cured completely. However, years of advancement in medical research have allowed for doctors to make living with these diseases manageable. Other STDs, like Gonorrhea and Chlamydia, are becoming resistant to the antibiotics that usually are successful in curing them. The number of drug-resistant gonorrhea cases in the United States has quadrupled in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If not treated, STDs can cause very serious long term health complications. Some can even go from having no indicators at all to having very serious life threatening symptoms, with nothing in between. Infertility in both men and women is a common worst case complication for non-treatment of chlamydia and gonorrhea. You may not even realize you have an STD until you have damage to your reproductive organs, your vision, your heart or other vital organs. Having an STD also weakens the immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to other infections. Chlamydia and gonorrhea can also cause lung infections, blood infections and blindness to babies born to untreated mothers.  Other infections like HPV and Hepatitis can even lead to cancer.

How Can I Protect Myself From STDs?

Here are some basic steps that you can take to protect yourself from STDs:

  • Consider that not having sex or sexual relations (abstinence) is the only sure way to prevent STDs.
  • Use a latex condom every time you have sex. (If you use a lubricant, make sure it is water-based.)
  • Limit your number of sexual partners. The more partners you have, the more likely you are to catch an STD.
  • Practice mutual monogamy. This means you only have sex with only one person and that person only has sex with you.
  • Choose your sex partners with care. Don’t have sex with someone whom you suspect may have an STD. And keep in mind that you can’t always tell by looking if your partner has an STD.
  • Get checked for STDs. Don’t risk giving the infection to someone else.
  • Don’t use alcohol or drugs before you have sex. You may be less likely to use a condom if you are drunk or high.
  • Know the signs and symptoms of STDs. Look for them in yourself and your sex partners.
  • Learn about STDs. The more you know, the better you can protect yourself.

If your sexual history and current signs and symptoms suggest that you have an STD, laboratory tests can identify the cause and detect other infections you might have also. Testing for a disease in someone who doesn’t have symptoms is called screening. Most of the time, STD screening is not a routine part of health care, and must be requested. If infection is confirmed, a second test will be performed following treatment to confirm that the infection is cured as reinfection by an untreated or undertreated partner is common. A bout of chlamydia doesn’t protect you from future exposures. You can catch the infection again and again, so get retested if you have a new partner. It’s also possible to be infected with an STD yet still test negative, particularly if you’ve recently been infected, so regular STD screenings with your doctor are a must if you are sexually active with different people.

MASS hosts monthly testing events, and is a local resource for support and assistance. For those not in the Newport News area, you can click here to locate an STD screening center near you.