Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), also known as sexually transmitted infections (STIs), are infections that are typically caused by bacteria or viruses and are passed from person to person during sexual contact with the penis, vagina, anus, or mouth. The symptoms of STDs/STIs vary between individuals, depending on the cause, and many people may not experience symptoms at all.
Many STDs/STIs have significant health consequences. For instance, certain STIs can also increase the risk of getting and transmitting HIV/AIDS and alter the way the disease progresses. STIs can also cause long-term health problems, particularly in women and infants. Some of the health problems that arise from STIs include pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, tubal or ectopic pregnancy, cervical cancer, and perinatal or congenital infections in infants.
People with STDs/STIs may feel ill and notice some of the following signs and symptoms:
Unusual discharge from the penis or vagina
Sores or warts on the genital area
Painful or frequent urination
Itching and redness in the genital area
Blisters or sores in or around the mouth
Abnormal vaginal odor
Anal itching, soreness, or bleeding
In some cases, people with STIs have no symptoms. Over time, any symptoms that are present may improve on their own. It is also possible for a person to have an STI with no symptoms and then pass it on to others without knowing it.
If you are concerned that you or your sexual partner may have an STI, talk to your health care provider. Even if you do not have symptoms, it is possible you may have an STI that needs treatment to ensure your and your partners’ sexual health.
Viruses such as HIV, genital herpes, human papillomavirus, hepatitis, and cytomegalovirus cause STDs/STIs that cannot be cured. People with an STI caused by a virus will be infected for life and will always be at risk of infecting their sexual partners. However, treatments for these viruses can significantly reduce the risk of passing on the infection and can reduce or eliminate symptoms. STIs caused by bacteria, yeast, or parasites can be cured using appropriate medication.
STDs/STIs caused by bacteria or parasites can be treated with antibiotics. These antibiotics are most often given by mouth (orally). However, sometimes they are injected or applied directly to the affected area.
The treatments, complications, and outcomes for viral STIs depend on the particular virus (HIV, genital herpes, human papillomavirus, hepatitis, or cytomegalovirus). Treatments can reduce the symptoms and the progression of most of these infections. For example, medications are available to limit the frequency and severity of genital herpes outbreaks while reducing the risk that the virus will be passed on to other people.
Individuals with HIV need to take special antiretroviral drugs that control the amount of virus they carry. These drugs, called highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART, can help people live longer, healthier lives and can prevent onward transmission of HIV to others. If a woman with HIV becomes pregnant, these medicines also can reduce the chance that her fetus or infant will get the infection.