Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), once called venereal
diseases, are at an epidemic levels as infectious diseases in the United
States today. More than 20 STDs have now been identified, and they
affect more than 19 million men and women in this country each year.
The annual comprehensive cost of STDs in the United States is
estimated to be well in excess of $16 billion.
Understanding the basic facts about STDs -- the ways in which they
are spread, their common symptoms, and how they can be treated -- is
the first step toward prevention. The information contained in these pages
is drawn from information published by the National Institute of Allergy
and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a part of the National Institutes of
Health and from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. It is important to understand at least five key points
about all STDs in this country today:
- STDs affect men and women of all backgrounds and economic
levels. They are most prevalent among teenagers and young adults.
Nearly two-thirds of all STDs occur in people younger than 25 years
- The incidence of STDs is rising, in part because in the last
few decades, young people have become sexually active earlier yet are
marrying later. In addition, divorce is more common. The net result
is that sexually active people today are more likely to have multiple
sex partners during their lives and are potentially at risk for
- Most of the time, STDs cause no symptoms, particularly in
women. When and if symptoms develop, they may be confused with those
of other diseases not transmitted through sexual contact. Even when
an STD causes no symptoms, however, a person who is infected may be
able to pass the disease on to a sex partner. That is why many
doctors recommend periodic testing or screening for people who have
more than one sex partner.
- Health problems caused by STDs tend to be more severe and more
frequent for women than for men, in part because the frequency of
asymptomatic infection means that many women do not seek care until
serious problems have developed.
- Some STDs can spread into the uterus (womb) and fallopian tubes
to cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which in turn is a major
cause of both infertility and ectopic (tubal) pregnancy. The latter
can be fatal.
- STDs in women also may be associated with cervical cancer. One
STD-human papillomavirus infection (HPV) causes genital warts and
cervical and other genital cancers.
- STDs can be passed from a mother to
her baby before, during, or immediately
after birth; some of these infections of
the newborn can be cured easily, but
others may cause serious harm.
- When diagnosed and treated early, many STDs can be treated
effectively. Some diseases have become resistant to the drugs used
to treat them and now require newer types of antibiotics. Experts
believe that having STDs other than AIDS increases one's risk for
becoming infected with the AIDS virus.
Brief descriptions of common
STDs are included below.
For more detailed information, click on the links at the bottom of this page.
HIV Infection and AIDS
AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) was first reported
in the United States in 1981. It is caused by the human
immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a virus that destroys the
body's ability to fight off infection. An estimated
people in the United States are currently infected with HIV.
People who have AIDS are very susceptible to many
life-threatening diseases, called opportunistic infections,
and to certain forms of cancer. Transmission of the virus
primarily occurs during sexual activity and by sharing
needles used to inject intravenous drugs.
This infection is the most common of all bacterial STDs, with
an estimated 1.3 million new cases occurring each year. In both
men and women, chlamydial infection may cause an abnormal genital
discharge and burning with urination. In women, untreated chlamydial
infection may lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, one of the most
common causes of ectopic pregnancy and infertility in women. Many
people with chlamydial infection, however, have few or no symptoms of
infection. Once diagnosed with chlamydial infection, a person can be
treated with an antibiotic.
Genital herpes affects an estimated 50 million Americans.
Approximately 1,000,000 new cases of this incurable viral infection
develop annually. Herpes infections are caused by herpes simplex
virus (HSV). The major symptoms of herpes infection are
painful blisters or open sores in the genital area. These
may be preceded by a tingling or burning sensation in the
legs, buttocks, or genital region. The herpes sores usually
disappear within two to three weeks, but the virus remains
in the body for life and the lesions may recur from time to
time. Severe or frequently recurrent genital herpes is
treated with one of several antiviral drugs that are
available by prescription. These drugs help control the
symptoms but do not eliminate the herpes virus from the
body. Suppressive antiviral therapy can be used to prevent
occurrences and perhaps transmission.
who acquire genital herpes during pregnancy can transmit the
virus to their babies during delivery. Doctors can take
steps to prevent this. Untreated HSV infection in newborns
can result in serious consequences to the baby so it is
important for pregnant women to be tested for this disease.
Genital warts (also called venereal warts or condylomata
acuminata) are caused by human papillomavirus, a virus related to the
virus that causes common skin warts. Genital warts usually first
appear as small, hard painless bumps in the vaginal area, on the
penis, or around the anus. If untreated, they may grow and develop a
fleshy, cauliflower-like appearance. Genital warts infect a
considerable number of Americans each year. In addition to genital
warts, certain high-risk types of HPV cause cervical cancer and other
genital cancers. Genital warts are treated with a topical drug
(applied to the skin), by freezing, or if they recur, with injections
of a type of interferon. If the warts are very large, they can be
removed by surgery.
Approximately 400,000 cases of gonorrhea are reported to the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year in this
country. The most common symptoms of gonorrhea are a discharge from
the vagina or penis and painful or difficult urination. The most
common and serious complications occur in women and, as with
chlamydial infection, these complications include PID, ectopic
pregnancy, and infertility. Historically, penicillin has been used to
treat gonorrhea, but in the last decade, four types of antibiotic
resistance have emerged. New antibiotics or combinations of drugs
must be used to treat these resistant strains.
The incidence of syphilis has increased and decreased dramatically
in recent years, with more than 14,000 cases reported in
first symptoms of syphilis may go undetected because they are very
mild and disappear spontaneously. The initial symptom is a chancre;
it is usually a painless open sore that usually appears on the penis
or around or in the vagina. It can also occur near the mouth, anus,
or on the hands. If untreated, syphilis may go on to more advanced
stages, including a transient rash and, eventually, serious
involvement of the heart and central nervous system. The full course
of the disease can take years. Penicillin remains the most effective
drug to treat people with syphilis.
Other diseases that may be sexually transmitted include
trichomoniasis, bacterial vaginosis, cytomegalovirus infections,
scabies, and pubic lice.
STDs in pregnant women are associated with a number of adverse
outcomes, including spontaneous abortion and infection in the
newborn. Low birth weight and prematurity appear to be associated
with STIs, including chlamydial infection and trichomoniasis.
Congenital or perinatal infection (infection that occurs around the
time of birth) occurs in 30 to 70 percent of infants born to infected
mothers, and complications may include pneumonia, eye infections, and
permanent neurologic damage.
What Can You Do to Prevent STDs?
The U.S.Center for Disease Control states in its 2015
Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines that
"[t]he most reliable way to avoid transmission of STDs is to
abstain from oral, vaginal, and anal sex or be in a
long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a partner
known to be uninfected."
Anyone diagnosed as having an STD should:
- Be treated to reduce the risk of transmitting an
STD to an
- Discuss with a doctor the possible risk of transmission in
breast milk and whether commercial formula should be substituted.
- Notify all recent sex partners and urge them to get a checkup.
- Follow the doctor's orders and complete the full course of
medication prescribed. A follow-up test to ensure that the infection
has been cured is often an important step in treatment.
- Avoid all sexual activity while being treated for an
Sometimes people are too embarrassed or frightened to ask for help
or information. Most STDs are readily treated, and the earlier a
person seeks treatment and warns sex partners about the disease, the
less likely the disease will do irreparable physical damage, be
spread to others or, in the case of a woman, be passed on to a
For further information, please click on the links below: