What Are Sexually Transmitted Diseases?
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections that can pass from one person to another through sexual contact. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than a million people acquire an STD every day. (1) More than 30 bacteria, viruses and parasites can spread through sexual activities. Common STDs include:
- Chlamydia: This is a very common bacterial infection. More than 1.5 million cases were reported in 2020. (2)
- Gonorrhea: This common bacterial infection is sometimes called “the clap.” There were more than 675,000 cases in 2020. (2)
- Syphilis: This common bacterial infection is dangerous if left untreated. There were almost 134,000 cases in 2020. (2)
- Trichomoniasis: This parasitic infection can cause irritation of the vagina and vulva, known as vaginitis. It’s estimated that more than 2 million people had trichomoniasis in 2018. (3)
- Herpes: This viral infection can cause blisters and sores in the mouth and genitals. It’s estimated that more than 18 million Americans have genital herpes. (4)
- Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS): HIV is a viral infection that damages the immune system. This damage can cause AIDS, though not everyone with HIV has AIDS. It’s estimated that almost 1.2 million Americans have HIV. (5)
- Human Papillomavirus (HPV): The most common STD, HPV is a typically harmless virus, but some forms can cause cancer or genital warts. It’s estimated that 42.5 million Americans have HPV. (6)
- Hepatitis B (HBV): This virus can cause liver damage. An estimated 850,000 Americans are living with HBV. (7)
A stigma is often attached to having STDs due to the association with sex. This can stop people from getting tested or passing on information to sexual partners who are at risk. However, these infections are common, with one in five people in the United States having an STD. (6) Untreated STDs can have substantial impacts on reproductive and sexual health, but testing can ensure diagnosis and the correct treatment.
How Do You Get STDs?
STDs are spread through sexual contact. This includes oral, anal, and vaginal sex. Some infections also transmit through contact between genitals. This is especially true of parasitic conditions, such as scabies, that are spread through skin-to-skin contact.
Some STDs can also be spread through nonsexual contact. For example, infected blood can transfer HIV and HBV. This means sharing needles, such as for tattoos or drug use, can spread these viruses. Some infections move from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.
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Practicing safe sex can help prevent the transmission of STDs. Condoms are the best protection, as they create a barrier between each person’s skin. There’s also a risk of spreading STDs during oral sex. Condoms are protective when performing oral sex on a penis. Oral condoms, also known as dental dams, are the safest option for oral sex involving a vagina or anus.
A doctor can provide vaccines for Hepatitis B and HPV, which helps protect a person from infection. Drugs, called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), can help prevent the spread of HIV. PrEP is a good idea for people who may be exposed to the virus, such as those with an HIV-positive partner.
How to Test for STDs
Each STD has a different test, but all are simple and accurate. STD screens can involve testing the following samples:
- Cheek swab
- Samples from sores or blisters
- Cell samples from the penis, vagina, urethra, cervix, anus, or throat
In some cases, doctors also carry out a physical exam.
Many people don’t have any symptoms when infected with an STD, so regular screening is important. This is especially true for the at-risk population, such as sex workers and people who inject drugs. Tests are also common for people starting an exclusive relationship with a new partner.
It’s essential to be honest with the person doing the test by talking about sexual experiences and symptoms. Doctors and nurses and nurses commonly have these conversations with patients, and they won’t be judgmental. Knowing a person's full sexual history ensures the health care provider knows what tests to perform and can also make a correct diagnosis if STD tests are negative.
Finding STD Clinics
Primary care physicians can carry out STD tests, but it’s not a test that's regularly conducted, and most people need to request a screening. STD clinics are available nationwide for people who don’t feel comfortable talking to their usual health care provider.
Local health departments generally have lists of STD clinics in the local area. If there aren’t any, the health department can refer individuals to another provider. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also maintains a searchable database of clinics. (8) Other options for STD testing include Planned Parenthood, neighborhood health clinics, and LGBTQ clinics. Health insurance often covers STD tests, and many clinics offer free or low-cost screenings.
At-Home STD Testing
Testing rates for at-home STD screening are around 11 times higher than clinic-based screening. (9) Convenience and affordability play a role in these numbers. However, at-home tests can also provide confidentiality, which helps some people overcome their embarrassment over needing the test.
The CDC advises that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved a self-test for HIV. (10) This refers to a test that provides a result in the home. However, FDA-approved at-home specimen collection kits are available for chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, and syphilis. (10) With these options, samples are sent back to a laboratory for testing, and results are sent to patients via email or through a secure online portal. All tests include instructions and all the materials needed to collect the specimen.
Although at-home testing comes with many benefits, that option isn’t available for every disease. Another drawback is the risk of improper use. Collecting samples incorrectly, or waiting too long to send samples, can lead to false results. In some cases, individuals still have to see a doctor after an at-home test, either to confirm results or to get treatment.