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How to prevent sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) have reached an all-time high for the sixth consecutive year. While many STDs are treatable or curable, they can cause serious health issues or even death if left untreated. Caroline B. Bekele, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician, shares what causes STDs, how to prevent them and when to get tested.

What causes STDs?

“There are different classes of organisms involved, such as bacteria, viruses and parasites, which get transmitted from one person to another through sexual intercourse and cause disease,” explains Dr. Bekele.

What are the different types of STDs?

There are many types of STDs (also called sexually transmitted infections or STIs), including:

  • Chlamydia

  • Gonorrhea

  • Hepatitis

  • Herpes

  • HIV/AIDS

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)

  • Syphilis

  • Trichomoniasis

  • Warts

Signs you may have an STD

While symptoms vary, the following could be signs you have an STD:

  • Genital symptoms:

    • Discharge from the penis.

    • Bumps, warts or sores near the vagina, penis or anus.

    • Redness, intense itching, pain or swelling near the vagina, penis or anus.

    • Painful sex.

    • Vaginal discharge with a bad odor or that is a different amount or color than your usual discharge.

    • Vaginal bleeding when you’re not on your period.

  • Other symptoms:

    • Painful or frequent urination.

    • Skin rash.

    • Jaundice (yellowing of the whites of the eyes or skin).

    • Chills, fever, aches and pains.

    • Weight loss.

    • Diarrhea.

    • Night sweats.

    • Unexplained sore throat or oral sores/lesions.

How to prevent STDs

“Practicing safe sex behaviors is key,” says Dr. Bekele. “This starts by knowing your sexual partner well, including their sexual history and preferences or behaviors that may increase risk of STDs, avoiding risky sexual behaviors such as engaging in sexual practices with multiple partners, and consistently using barrier protection.”

You can reduce your risk of STDs through the following methods:

  • Abstinence. Not having sex (including vaginal, oral or anal sex) is the most reliable way to prevent infection.

  • Get vaccinated. Ask your physician if you should get vaccinated for HPV or hepatitis B.

  • Have fewer sexual partners. Before you have sex with a new partner, get tested together and share your results.

  • Practice mutual monogamy. This means you and your partner agree only to be sexually active with each other.

  • Use condoms. Consistent and correct use of male latex condoms is highly effective in reducing STD transmission. If you’re allergic to latex, there are other options available, though these can have higher breakage rates than latex condoms.

Who should get tested for STDs?

If you are sexually active or thinking about becoming sexually active, talk to your primary care provider about STD testing and prevention. You should also get tested before becoming sexually active with a new partner or if you are concerned you may have an STD.

Why it’s important to get tested for STDs

“Sexually transmitted illnesses cause significant morbidity and mortality in the United States,” Dr. Bekele says. “Undiagnosed and untreated STDs can cause a myriad of serious and life-threatening complications, such as infertility, neurologic damage, malignancy and even death.”

If you’re nervous or embarrassed to ask about testing, know that your doctor has heard it all before and is there to help you be as healthy as possible.

“It certainly can be nerve-wracking to get tested, especially if you have any doubt or suspicion regarding your status as it relates to STDs,” says Dr. Bekele. “However, it is important to get tested and to know your status because if treatment is needed, it’s better to get it early to prevent complications.”

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