STDs: The Basics


What are sexually transmitted diseases?

The names “sexually transmitted disease” or “sexually transmitted infection” may be a lot more straightforward than the old term “venereal disease,” but they still bear some explanation. A sexually transmitted disease (STD) is any disease passed from person to person by sexual contact. Sexual contact includes all forms of penetrating intercourse, oral sex and a wide range of activities that might be described as sex play or foreplay. Some STDs can be passed through mere skin-to-skin contact; others require contact with infected body fluids such as blood, semen, saliva or vaginal secretions. A number of STDs can also be passed from mother to child during pregnancy or at birth. There are more than two dozen different STDs , which can be caused by very different microbes. Many–chlamydia and gonorrhea, to name two of the most common–are caused by bacteria. Some, such as herpes and HIV/AIDS, are caused by viruses. Still others are caused by parasites and other microorganisms.

Once and for all, is it true that some STDs actually can be spread through contact with things such as toilet seats and hot tubs?

It’s highly unlikely that any STD would be spread by way of an inanimate object or surface such as a tanning bed or a toilet seat. The obvious exceptions are objects used in penetrative sex (sex toys such as dildos) and needles used for injecting drugs. Towels or other household objects also may be involved in the spread of some infections, particularly parasites such as lice.

Many of the bacteria and viruses responsible for STDs don’t survive long outside the body. In addition, some of them require friction in order to gain entry into the skin or mucous membranes of a new host. (Mucous membranes are the soft, moist tissue of areas such as the inside of the mouth or vagina.) Lastly, with reference to toilet seats, you have to remember that the thick skin of the buttocks and thighs is not especially susceptible to infection.

Hot tubs, too, have sometimes been rumored to be a source of STDs. But the chlorine and mineral salts used in these tubs are generally deadly to STD microbes. As an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association once put it, the question of whether you can get an STD from a hot tub depends entirely on what you’re doing in the tub.

Who is at risk of getting an STD?

Anyone. The risk of acquiring an STD has to do with what you do, not who you are. Lots of people have the idea that STDs are unusual diseases that affect only a small segment of the population. On the contrary, STDs are among the most widespread kinds of infectious disease, being outranked only by ubiquitous illnesses such as the common cold. According to a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, there are an estimated 15 million new sexually transmitted infections every year in the United States. Taking the U.S. population as a whole, the odds that a person will contract an STD over the course of a lifetime are one in four. One reason for these high rates is that human beings give STDs lots of opportunities to spread. Consider this: Worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, intercourse takes place 42 billion times per year. That works out to 1300 ejaculations per second.

How would I know if I had an STD?

Identifying STDs is not always easy. Given that there are two dozen STDs, it’s impossible to include every symptom in a short list, but here are some of the most common ones:

  • – Sores, blisters, bumps or rashes on or near the genitals
  • – Painful urination, or an unusual discharge with the urine
  • – Abnormal vaginal discharge or strong odor
  • – Bleeding between menstrual periods
  • – Pain in the lower abdomen or swollen lymph nodes in the groin

One of the big problems in controlling the spread of STDs, however, is that in lots of people these diseases do not cause symptoms. (Medical texts often use the term “asymptomatic.”) In addition, several STDs cause symptoms that are quite subtle and hard to recognize. In many cases, then, the only way to identify an STD is with a diagnostic test.

Do STDs pose any long-term health risks?

Sometimes. While some sexually transmitted infections may resolve quickly without complications, others play a role in problems such as the development of cervical cancer, liver disease and reproductive tract disorders that can impair a person’s ability to have children. Among the most serious consequences of STDs is the risk they pose to infants who are exposed in the womb or at birth. Many of these children may suffer serious mental retardation or life-threatening illness. Lastly, of course, the most lethal STD is HIV/AIDS, which is still incurable.

What are the most common STDs?

When surveyed, most Americans name HIV/AIDS along with gonorrhea as the most common STDs, but actually these conditions are not the most widespread. The sexually transmitted diseases with the largest number of new cases per year are HPV and trichomoniasis, both of which are estimated to afflict 5 million persons per year. Because both of these infections can be cured, however, a large proportion of those infected in a given year will be clear of infection by the next year.

By contrast, some of the viral infections, such as herpes and human papillomavirus (HPV), are not curable. They persist for the life of the person infected, so the total number of infected persons (prevalence) grows each year. The current prevalence for both herpes and HPV is estimated in the tens of millions in the United States.

February 24th, 2017 by