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Q&A: Your STD questions answered

Don’t be afraid to tackle the awkward topic of symptoms ‘down there’

You’ve had “the STD talk” with your significant other, but suddenly strange and undesirable symptoms begin to appear in places where the sun definitely doesn’t shine.

He/she told me they were clean. Were they lying? What should I do?

As awkward as it may be, talking with your health care provider about embarrassing symptoms is crucial. Did you know that almost half of sexually active teens will contract an STD before their 25th birthday? Even more alarming, most of them are blissfully unaware of the infection—and of the risk the STD poses to them and their partners.

Because of the staggering epidemic of sexually transmitted infections every year, it’s more important than ever to have difficult conversations with your significant other, use condoms correctly and receive regular STD screenings if you’re sexually active.

What are the most common STDs and their risks?

HPV: HPV, or human papillomavirus, is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. Nearly all sexually active men and women have a chance of getting HPV at some point in their life. HPV is spread through vaginal and anal sex, and it can also be spread orally. In fact, more than 50 percent of cancers in the mouth and throat are due to HPV infections, and the virus can also cause cancer of the vulva, vagina, penis and anus. There are safe and effective HPV vaccines that will protect both men and women from the virus.

Chlamydia: Chlamydia can infect both men and women and is one of the largest reported STDs in the United States. Most people who have chlamydia may not even know it, since it often presents with very mild symptoms or none at all. If left untreated, it can cause permanent damage to a woman’s reproductive system.

Gonorrhea: Gonorrhea causes infections in the genitals, rectum and throat. It is more common among young people (ages 15-24) and is spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex. Important to know, gonorrhea can be passed from a pregnant woman to her child during childbirth.

Genital herpes: Genital herpes is caused by two separate viruses—HSV-1 (oral herpes) and HSV-2.  Ninety percent of people who harbor HSV-2 may not know they have it. While oral herpes is usually not considered an STD, it becomes one when the virus is transmitted to the genitals through oral sex.

HIV: HIV is spread through certain bodily fluids—blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids, breast milk—and attacks the body’s immune system. Engaging in unprotected anal and vaginal sex are the highest-risk behaviors for transmitting HIV. Usually, there’s little to no risk of getting HIV from oral sex, but, it can happen.

Syphilis: This STD is called “the great imitator” because its symptoms mimic those of other infections and diseases. The painless sores that present with syphilis are often confused for ingrown hairs or harmless bumps. Syphilis can be transmitted through vaginal, anal and oral sex, and, when not detected early and treated, it can lead to blindness, paralysis, dementia and permanent damage of internal organs.

Trichomoniasis: Commonly known as “trich,” this STD is caused by a parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. Up to 70 percent of people infected will have no symptoms, or symptoms that range from mild irritation to severe inflammation. Without treatment, “trich” can reside for months or even years in the body and increase the risk of contracting other STDs like HIV.

Can I have an STD and not know it?

The short answer: YES. Many STDs have very mild symptoms or present with no symptoms at all. According to Patricia Sulak, M.D., professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine and director of the Wellness & Sexual Health Program at Baylor Scott & White Health in Temple, around 75 percent of women and 50 percent of men with chlamydia don’t know they have it. Even more troubling, 90 percent of people with genital herpes don’t know it, either.

“The most alarming issue surrounding STDs is many people who are carriers are completely unaware. This is because symptoms of common STDs can mirror other health conditions, or, they may experience only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. That’s why I’m passionate about educating people about STDs and the risks they pose,” she said.

Can I get an STD without having sex?

You can, especially through oral sex and genital-to-genital contact. “STDs like HPV are highly contagious,” Sulak said. “In some cases, the virus only needs skin to skin contact to be spread. Most STDs will also infect the mouth and the throat.”

Sulak also said you can pass an STD to another person through sharing towels. “This can happen because most sexually transmitted infections—especially HPV—can survive in damp, moist environments,” she said. “Since HPV is very contagious all it may take to infect yourself is using a contaminated towel.”

Are most STDs treatable?

The good news is almost all STDs are treatable. “It’s imperative to catch these infections early to minimize riskier side effects and health issues,” Sulak said. “As your doctor, we rely on you to dialogue with us and keep us informed about your health and wellness. We can’t help you if you first don’t help yourself.”

When should I visit the doctor?

 Most STDs manifest with similar symptoms:

  • Itching, burning or redness in the genital area
  • An abnormal discharge from the vagina or penis
  • Burning sensation when urinating
  • Rectal pain
  • Rashes or sores in the genital area
  • Bleeding between periods

The bottom line: You should always consult your health care provider if anything abnormal is going on below the belt.

How can I avoid getting an STD?

The only foolproof way to avoid an STD is to not have sex (vaginal, anal or oral). For those who are sexually active, the correct and consistent use of latex condoms is effective in reducing the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Reducing the number of your romantic partners, mutual monogamy with an uninfected partner and getting vaccinated against HPV will also help protect both you and others from STDs.

For a comprehensive look at the prevention, treatment and risks associated with STDs visit

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