Sexually Transmitted Infections

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs): the basics

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs): the basics

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which used to be known as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), are a group of infections similar to one another only in that they can be "caught" through sexual contact. STIs are caused by different organisms, usually bacteria or viruses, and have a wide variety of symptoms. Some can be cured with antibiotics. Others cannot be cured - only controlled. The following are the STIs usually seen in North America.

  • Chlamydia is a very common sexually transmitted infection in North America, affecting both men and women. Chlamydia is caused by a bacterium called Chlamydia trachomatis. It's easily treated with antibiotics, but it can sometimes lead to serious complications such as infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), and Reiter's syndrome (an arthritis-like condition) if it isn't caught early enough.
  • Gonorrhea is another very common STI in North America. As with chlamydia, gonnorrhea can lead to serious complications in women, such as infertility and PID. Gonorrhea is caused by bacteria, and it can be treated with antibiotics. The disease can affect mucous linings in the vagina, cervix, penis, rectum, throat, and eyes. Gonorrhea is also known as "the clap."
  • Syphilis used to be a leading cause of death and disability, but it's much less common today in our age of antibiotics. In the United States, the most affected age group is 35-39 in males, and 20-24 in females. It can be treated with antibiotics if caught early. If left untreated, it can come back later to cause damage to the heart, nerves, brain, bone, joints, liver, and blood vessels. Syphilis is also known as "syph" (and in some older literature it is known as "the pox").
  • HIV is the viral infection that can cause AIDS. The virus attacks cells of the immune system, leaving a person defenseless against many other infections and their complications. There is no cure, but antiviral medications can be used to slow down the progression of the disease.
  • Hepatitis B is caused by a virus that infects the liver. It can lead to chronic liver disease and liver cancer. Most people who are infected do not have any symptoms, but they can still pass the virus on. It cannot be cured, but a vaccine is available to help prevent it.
  • Genital herpes, which produces cold-sore-type skin lesions in the genital area, is also caused by a virus. The condition comes and goes, with skin lesions "flaring up" from time to time. There is no cure, but antiviral medications are available to treat the outbreaks and reduce the frequency of flare-ups, and some can reduce the risk of transmission of the virus (in other words, it can reduce the risk of passing on genital herpes to a sex partner).
  • Chancroid, a bacterial infection of the genitals that causes painful sores, was once rare in North America. But it has cropped up more frequently in recent years. It can be treated with antibiotics.
  • Crabs, also known as pubic lice, are lice (tiny, wingless insects) that live in the genital area. They can be treated with medication.
  • HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a virus that affects the skin in the genital area, causing wart-like growths. It can also affect a woman's cervix and increases her risk of cancer of the cervix. It is important for women over 21 years of age to have regular Pap tests (usually every 3 years) to catch any precancerous changes (changes in the cells of the cervix that may lead to cancer) so that they can be treated before they develop into cancer. Women aged 30 to 65 are advised to have a Pap test and HPV test done together every 5 years. The HPV test is done to check for the presence of HPV in the cells of the cervix.

    There are 2 types of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines available. One is approved for males and females aged 9 to 26. This vaccine protects against the 2 types of HPV that cause approximately 70% of all cervical cancers (types 16 and 18) and the 2 types of HPV that cause about 90% of all genital warts (types 6 and 11). The other vaccine is approved for girls and young women aged 9 to 26. This vaccine protects against the 2 types of HPV that cause approximately 70% of all cervical cancers (types 16 and 18).
  • Trichomoniasis is caused by a parasite. It usually causes no symptoms in men, although many women have symptoms. It can be cured with antibiotics.
  • Lymphogranuloma venereum, or LGV, is caused by a subtype of the bacteria that causes chlamydia, but it is more invasive.  LGV was previously rare in North America and is typically seen in tropical regions of the world, such as South America, Asia, and the Caribbean. However, there has been a recent increase in the number of reported cases in North America. If left untreated, LGV can lead to scarring, deformity of the genitals, and, rarely, brain infection or hepatitis. Fortunately, this infection can be treated with antibiotics.

Many STIs can lead to health problems later on if they are not found and treated. Being infected with HPV can increase a woman's risk of cervical cancer. Chlamydia can lead to infertility and long-term pain in women by damaging the fallopian tubes, which are an important part of the reproductive system. HIV/AIDS eventually destroys the immune system, leading to an increased risk of infections, cancers, and death.

The contents of this health site are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition.

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