An STD (also called an STI or sexually transmitted infection) is an infection contracted through sexual activity. Both heterosexuals and homosexuals can get STDs. Some STDs are caused by viruses, and others by bacteria. You can contract an STD by engaging in intimate sexual contact, such as vaginal or anal intercourse or oral sex with a person who is infected. A baby can also contract an STD from its mother either in utero or during the birth process, with potentially severe consequences.

Many STDs are easily treated, but some have no cure. Since the consequences can range from emotional and physical discomfort to severe illness and even death, anyone who is sexually active should learn how to practice safe sex. You must be able to recognize the signs of infection and seek medical care. If you think you might have an STD, or have any of the symptoms associated with the STDs listed below, see your doctor immediately for diagnosis and treatment. If you are diagnosed with an STD, your sexual partner(s) must be treated, too.

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is one of the most common STDs. The culprit is a bacteria called Chlamydia trachomatis, which affects both men and women. This microscopic bacteria can take up residence in the genitals, urinary tract, and rectum. It does not always produce symptoms, especially in women, and can be difficult to detect.

Chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and sterility in women. A woman with a chlamydial infection may experience painful urination, vaginal discharge, or lower abdominal pain. A man may experience burning during urination and/or a discharge from the tip of the penis. However, many women and men experience no symptoms at all. For this reason, you should be evaluated by your doctor and always use condoms.

If left untreated, chlamydia can cause permanent damage to a woman's reproductive tract, resulting in infertility. In men, it infrequently causes inflammation of the epidydymis (portion of the male genital tract next to the testis where sperm maturation is partially accomplished), rectum, or prostate. Also, in rare cases, chlamydial infection in a man's urinary tract can be a part of of a list of conditions called Reiter’s syndrome (arthritis, uveitis, and urethritis). Antibiotics are used to treat a chlamydial infection.

Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is another common STD. Both men and women contract it. This is one STD that is more readily apparent in men than woman. A woman may not know she has been infected until her partner is diagnosed.

Gonorrhea is caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which can infect the urinary tract, reproductive organs, rectum, and the throat (when oral sex is practiced). Symptoms of gonorrhea in men include a thick, pus-like discharge from the penis, and burning during urination or symptoms of sore throat. Women may have a cloudy vaginal discharge, lower abdominal discomfort, or burning while urinating. In both men and women, the symptoms may be mild enough to go unnoticed until complications develop.

Gonorrhea may appear mild at first, but if the condition goes untreated it can become chronic and cause damage to both the male and female reproductive organs. It can also spread throughout the bloodstream and infect other parts of the body, causing potentially permanent damage. Antibiotics are prescribed to treat gonorrhea.

HIV/AIDS

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a virus with no known cure that is often transmitted through sexual contact. Most people who contract it will eventually die not from the virus itself, but from acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), the failure of the immune system caused by HIV.

People can carry the HIV virus and show no symptoms for ten years or more. Even without causing visible symptoms, the virus is still transmissible and others can be unknowingly infected through unprotected sexual activity. Although there is no known cure for an HIV infection, there are medicines given in combinations that have been effective in slowing the progress of the disease in many people.

Syphilis

Syphilis is a potentially serious STD that, fortunately, is not as common in developed countries. Initial symptoms may include painless ulcers on the genitals, rectum, tongue, or lips, and enlarged lymph nodes in the groin. Two to six weeks later, a rash may appear over any area of the body, but especially on the palms and soles. Mouth ulcers, fever, headache, soreness and aching in bones and joints, loss of appetite, and general malaise may also develop. When syphilis is left untreated, it can eventually attack the brain and other organs, resulting in paralysis, senility, insanity, blindness, and/or heart damage. Treatment with penicillin or other antibiotics usually cures syphilis.

Genital Herpes

The first sign of a genital herpes attack is often pain or itching in the genital area. Then, small, tender red bumps appear on and around the genitals, buttocks, and sometimes the thighs. The bumps progress to blisters and then to painful ulcer-like sores. The sores then crust over and heal without scarring. The initial or primary episode lasts about three weeks. Attacks are often recurrent, but become less severe and less frequent over time.

Genital herpes is mostly contagious during a flare-up. But, it is possible to spread the virus at any time, even when there is not active infection.

This STD is caused by the herpes simplex virus and is transmitted through any type of sexual contact, including anal, oral, and genital. Ways to prevent herpes include abstaining from sexual contact or using a condom. But, condoms do not assure absolute protection.

There is no cure, but there are medicines available to treat acute symptoms and also to decrease the frequency and severity of recurrent episodes.

Genital Warts

Both men and women can get genital warts. They are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) and occur on the genital and/or anal areas. The warts are contagious. Certain strains of HPV can also affect a woman's cervix and cause abnormal changes called dysplasia, which may progress to cervical cancer. As with other STDs, both partners should be evaluated. While the virus stays in the body, there is medicine to treat the wart. Procedures are also available to destroy the warts.

The best defense against STDs is sexual abstinence. If you choose to have sex, use latex condoms to reduce your risk of getting an STD. If you suspect you may have contracted an STD, see your doctor immediately. Make certain that your partner(s) receives treatment, as well. Do not let embarrassment or ignorance keep you from seeking care.