STDs Patient Information Fact Sheet

What are STDs?
As the name implies, sexually transmitted diseases—or sexually transmitted infections, as some experts prefer—develop from organisms that are spread primarily through sexual contact. However, some of these diseases, such as congenital syphilis, can be transmitted nonsexually, from infected needles or from mother to child during pregnancy. The conduit in all cases is either blood, semen, or other bodily fluids.

The most prevalent STDs in the United States are herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. A person with any of these conditions is at higher risk for acquiring HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), a type of infection that can cause AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Women who have chlamydia or gonorrhea are also susceptible to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which is a major cause of infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and chronic pelvic pain.

Other STDs include chancroid, HPV (human papillomavirus), and trichomoniasis.

Some recent data on STDs, which have been reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), include:

  • One in six Americans between the ages of 14–49 is infected with herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), with rates approaching 50% in black women.
  • The total number of chlamydial infections in the US has risen every year since the late 1980s, topping
    1.4 million in 2011. This is likely due to better screening methods, more sensitive tests, and more complete reporting.
  • Gonorrhea is becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, a cause for great concern among groups (young adults and blacks, especially) where the disease is more common.
  • Rates of syphilis in 2010 were highest among men 20­–24 years old. This represents a major shift since 2006, when rates were highest in men 35–39 years old.

What are the symptoms of STDs?
Signs and symptoms of STDs range from unusual bleeding or discharges to bumps, sores, or swollen lymph nodes. While any of these are cause for concern, they often disappear within a few days or months, even without treatment. However, the organisms that cause STDs continue to reproduce in the body, leading to more serious “secondary” symptoms. For patients with syphilis, for instance, these may include skin rash, fever, muscle aches, joint pain, and changes in vision.

What causes STDs?
An STD is usually spread during sex, when someone who’s infected passes it to someone who isn’t. People who don’t use condoms, have multiple sex partners, or have a history of one or more STDs are at greatest risk. Adolescent girls, too, have a higher risk because constantly changing cells in the immature cervix make it more susceptible to certain sexually transmitted organisms.

Alcohol and recreational drug use have also been implicated in the spread of STDs, because these substances can impair a person’s judgment and cause them to take part in risky behaviors, such as unprotected sex.