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How to Detect and Treat STDs

A sexually transmitted disease (STD) is an infection contracted through sexual activity. You may see STDs referred to as sexually transmitted infections (STIs). They are the same thing.

STDs can affect people of all ages regardless of race or sexual orientation, but they are more common among adolescents and young adults. Their effects are emotional, physical, and sometimes fatal. A pregnant woman with an STD can pass the infection to her baby in utero or during birth. Serious problems can result.

Although many STDs are treatable, there are some that have no cure. If you suspect you may have an STD, get medical care right away. If you are diagnosed with an STD, you will need to notify your sexual partners so they can be treated as well.

If you are sexually active, protect yourself by learning about safe sex practices, STDs, and how to spot them. Arm yourself with knowledge and find out some facts on the most common STDs.


Chlamydia is one of the most common STDs. The culprit is a specific bacteria that affects both men and women. Bacteria can exist in the genitals, urinary tract, and rectum. In some cases, the infection can also spread to the eyes and throat.

Chlamydia does not always produce symptoms, so it can be difficult to know you have it without testing.

It is important to remember that symptoms may not occur for several weeks after exposure. Common symptoms include:

Complications of untreated chlamydia include:

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises yearly screening for:

Chlamydia is treated with antibiotics.


Gonorrhea, another common STD, is an infection caused by specific bacteria. Both men and women contract it. This is one STD that is more readily apparent in men than women. A woman may not know she has been infected until her partner is diagnosed. In some cases, men may not have any symptoms either.

Gonorrhea can infect the urinary tract, reproductive organs, rectum, and the throat. Common gonorrhea symptoms include:

Complications of untreated gonorrhea include:

Gonorrhea can spread throughout the bloodstream and infect other parts of the body, causing potentially permanent damage.

Gonorrhea is treated with antibiotics.


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 not have symptoms for 10 years or more. Even without causing visible symptoms, the virus is still transmissible and others can be infected through unprotected sexual activity.

Although there is no known cure for an HIV infection, there are antiretroviral medicines given in combinations that have been effective in slowing the progress of the disease in many people.


Syphilis is a potentially serious STD. Syphilis comes and goes in stages. In the primary phase, symptoms may include painless ulcers on or in the genitals, rectum, tongue, or lips, and enlarged lymph nodes in the groin. The ulcers inside the body may go undetected. Without treatment, the ulcers disappear, but the infection does not.

In the secondary phase, 2 to 6 weeks later, a rash may appear over any area of the body, but especially on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. 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.

Syphilis is treated with antibiotics. Damage done by syphilis may be untreatable depending on when it was discovered.

Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is an STD that is caused by a virus. It affects both men and women. This STD is transmitted through any type of sexual contact, including anal, oral, and genital. Genital herpes may not present symptoms in many cases, but when it does, here is what to look for:

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 3 weeks. Attacks are often recurrent, but often become less severe and less frequent over time.

Genital herpes is mostly contagious during a flare-up. However, it is possible to spread the virus at any time, even when there is not an active infection. Genital herpes is not curable, but can be managed with antiviral medication.

Genital Warts

Both men and women can get genital warts. They are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) and occur on the genital and 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.

The CDC recommends vaccination for both males and females. The vaccine protects against some strains of the HPV virus, reducing the risk of:

While the virus stays in the body, there is no medicine to treat it. Procedures are available to destroy the warts. This may reduce the appearance of new 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 right away. Make certain that your partner receives treatment as well. Do not let fear keep you from seeking care.


American Social Health Association

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Sex Information and Education Council of Canada

Sexuality and U


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Last reviewed February 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP  Last Updated: 2/10/2015