STD basics

Definition

What is an STD?

A sexually transmitted disease (STD) is an infectious illness that is transmitted through unprotected sexual activity … including vaginal, anal and oral sex, or skin-to-skin contact with an infected area. STDs can also be spread via skin-to-skin contact or through intravenous (IV) drug use, and can be passed to an unborn child during pregnancy or through breastfeeding. 

STDs are caused by some 30 viruses, bacteria and parasites that survive and spread through sexual contact. STDs have been around for hundreds of years and most people will experience an infection during their lifetime … the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate 19 million new cases every year, which presents a major public health challenge. Indeed, untreated STDs are estimated to cause at least 24,000 women to become infertile every year.

STDs vs. STIs

Diseases that are passed from person to person through sexual activity are sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). "Disease" implies a clear medical problem, usually with obvious signs or symptoms. But some common STDs are asymptomatic; in these cases, the sexually transmitted virus or bacteria can be described as causing a sexually transmitted infection (STI), which may or may not evolve into a "disease." Because "STD" is preferred by most people, we generally use that term for both sexually transmitted infections and diseases.

Risk

STD risk factors

How do people get infected with an STD?

STDs can affect anyone of any background, lifestyle, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status and are most often passed from one person to another through sexual activity … including genital, anal and oral sex. STD risk factors include:

  • A history of STDs
  • A history of unprotected sex
  • A new sexual partner
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Meeting sexual partners on the Internet
  • Men who have sex with men (MSM)
  • Sexual contact with sex workers
  • Sexual contact while under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • Illicit drug use

Due to reporting disparities and a number of other variables, there is a higher prevalence of STDs among sexually active females, teenagers, young adults, African-Americans and Hispanics … for example, women are more likely to get screened, and some ethnic/minority groups are more likely to use public clinics that report STD cases. As well, awareness of STDs and how to prevent them, and access to regular healthcare are inconsistent among populations that are disadvantaged by poverty and other social determinants … these groups may therefore be more likely to engage in risky sexual activity.

Even if you've been treated for an STD, you're not immune … you can be re-infected. That's why sexual partners should be treated at the same time so that an untreated partner still carrying the bacteria or virus doesn't re-infect the treated partner.

Symptoms

STD signs and symptoms

Many sexually transmitted infections are "silent." That is, they have no symptoms … at least not right away. And when symptoms are present (e.g., sores, bumps, painful urination, discharges, bleeding, fever, etc.), they may resemble those of other conditions, which means that proper diagnosis and treatment is often delayed.

Our STD Guides can help you know what to look for … including an overview of risk factors, symptoms, complications, testing and treatment for:

Complications

STD complications

What if an STD is untreated?

Most people aren't aware that complications from untreated STDs can include everything from infertility and upper genital tract infections to heart disease, certain cancers, HIV and many other diseases and abnormalities … even death.

For example, untreated syphilis can damage the internal organs and neurological system, and untreated gonorrhea and chlamydia infections can spread throughout the body and cause infertility. STDs can also be seriously harmful to pregnant women and their babies.

So, if you're sexually active, it's in your best interest to get tested annually … or, if you have multiple sexual partners, get tested every six months. Know what other STD risk factors may also apply to you — from men who have sex with men (MSM) to substance abuse and various social determinants. The better informed you are, the better you can protect yourself and others from the potentially debilitating effects of STDs.

Testing

STD testing

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), less than half of people who should be screened receive recommended STD testing. It's important to detect and treat diseases early on to protect your health and prevent the spread of STDs to others.

We provide testing for the most common bacterial and viral STDs that can be diagnosed through blood or urine samples:

We also provide treatment, counseling and therapy for certain diseases and individual circumstances.

At a test center that's most convenient for you, you can get tested quickly, privately and effectively for all of these STDs (no undressing or swabbing required!). Learn more about "testing windows" — the recommended amount of time between potential exposure to an STD infection, and when screening is expected to identify the infection (or re-infection).

Note: See your regular doctor to get tested and treated for other STDs — like HPV — that require a pelvic exam or a swab test that cannot be done at a standard testing facility. Be aware that most doctors don't automatically screen for STDs … so be sure to specifically ask your doctor for the tests you need.

Are the test results accurate and reliable?

Rest assured that your test results will be as reliable as those you'd receive through your regular doctor … and much more timely.

Through our partners at LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics — who, under the purview of the FDA, are subject to the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) of 1988 — the tests we offer are the gold standard in the industry. CLIA establishes consistent quality standards for all lab tests to ensure the timeliness, reliability and accuracy of test results … regardless of the location of a particular testing center.

Using type-specific testing, DNA PCR technology and nucleic acid amplification technology, SexualHealth.com offers you the highest degree of testing specificity and sensitivity available today … helping you and one of our doctors to make informed decisions about your treatment, and how to keep you as healthy as possible.

Treatment

STD treatment

Is there a cure or a treatment for STDs?

Some infections can be cured and others are chronic, but treatable with medication. Here's a snapshot of the most common STDs that are curable or treatable:

Common curable STDs

These STDs can be completely healed if you take the prescribed medications correctly.

STD Treatment
Chlamydia Antibiotics
Crabs and scabies Over-the-counter and prescription creams
Gonorrhea Antibiotics
Non-Gonococcal Urethritis (NGU) Antibiotics
Shigella Antibiotics
Syphilis Antibiotics
Trichomoniasis Antibiotics
Molluscum contagiosum Various

Common treatable STDs

These viruses can be treated and managed, but they cannot be cured.

STD Treatment
Hepatitis A Rest, fluid, vaccine
Hepatitis B Antiviral medications, vaccine
Hepatitis C Antiviral medications
Herpes (HSV) Antiviral medications
HIV Anti-retroviral therapy
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) Vaccine

Note: We provide testing and consultation for chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, herpes 1 & 2, HIV and syphilis. See your regular doctor to get tested and treated for other STDs that require a pelvic exam.

Prevention

STD prevention

How can I protect myself and others from STDs?

Abstinence (no sexual contact) is the only sure way to prevent STDs. But if you are sexually active, the best ways to stay healthy are:

  • To be mutually monogamous (ideally with a person who has tested negative for STDs, or who has been tested and treated for any STDs, if necessary)
  • To use a latex condom or a dental dam every time you have vaginal, anal or oral sex (you may also want to consider female condoms, FC1 and FC2)

The best way for men and women to decrease their chance of infection when having oral sex with women is to use a latex dental dam.

Get tested and take charge of your health

If you're sexually active, getting screened for STDs annually is the surest way to know if your status. If you have multiple sexual partners or unprotected sex, we recommend getting tested every six months. Protect yourself, protect your partners … and give yourself peace of mind.

If you have an STD …

First, you're not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate 19 million new STD cases in the United States every year. If you are positive for an STD, it's critical to complete the recommended treatment exactly as instructed.

And while it's not easy to do, be sure to tell everyone you've had sexual contact with in the last six months so they can get tested and treated, too. If it's been more than six months since you were sexually active, be sure to inform your most recent partner.

Remember, once you've been treated for an STD, you're not immune … you can be re-infected. That's why sexual partners should be treated at the same time so that an untreated partner still carrying the bacteria or virus doesn't re-infect the treated partner. Additionally, with gonorrhea and chlamydia, you and your partner shouldn't have sexual contact again until one week after you've both completed treatment.

Concerned about STDs?

Find out if you should get tested today; peace of mind has never been easier. Questions about our process? See how our STD testing works.