Source: Adapted from Family Medical Adviser, Reader’s Digest
What are sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)?
Sexually transmitted diseases – commonly known as STDs – are infections caused by micro-organisms passed on from person to person during intimate sexual contact.
Who is at risk for a sexually transmitted disease?
Practising safer sex by using a barrier method of contraception, such as the male condom, helps to reduce the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease, but does not remove the risk altogether.
Symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases
Telltale symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases may include: an unusual or unpleasant genital odour; soreness; itching; a rash; lumps; and ulcers. In addition, women may notice an increased vaginal discharge, and experience pain when urinating.
Certain infections can cause more serious health problems: chlamydia, for example, can cause infertility.
If you suspect you may have an STD, do not ignore it. Any unusual symptoms should be checked by your doctor or, if you prefer anonymity, at a clinic. Many sexually transmitted diseases do not have any obvious symptoms, but if you think you could be at risk – through having had unprotected sex, for example – you should make an appointment for a check-up. If you are found to have an infection, any recent sexual partner must also be treated.
Treatment for sexually transmitted diseases
- Trichomoniasis is caused by a tiny parasite. Commonly known as ‘trich’, it causes a green, frothy vaginal discharge. Trich is treated with antibiotics, and partners should be treated, too.
- Genital warts are among the commonest sexually transmitted diseases. They are caused by the human papillomavirus. White or pinkish lumps may appear on the skin of the genitals one to three months after contact with an infected person, or the infection may be symptom-free. Visible warts can be removed using laser treatment, liquid nitrogen or a painted-on lotion. The wart virus lies dormant in skin cells, so recurrences and transmission to others are common. Some strains encourage cancer of the cervix, so women may be offered more frequent smear tests.
- Genital herpes is caused by the Herpes simplex virus. Many people remain symptomless, but it can produce a flu-like illness plus a crop of painful ulcerating blisters around the genitals. Treatment with the antiviral drug acyclovir can hasten healing. Recurrences are common.
- Chlamydia is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. It often has no symptoms, but can cause infertility. Women may have pelvic discomfort on intercourse and bleeding between periods. It is treated with antibiotics.
- Gonorrhoea is a bacterial infection. It may cause no symptoms, or mild urinary discomfort, or severe urethral pain plus a heavy pus-stained discharge. It can spread to cause pelvic inflammatory disease in women. Gonorrhoea is treated with a single dose of antibiotics.
- Syphilis is a bacterial infection. A painless, shallow ulcer appears at the site of infection. If untreated, the disease progresses to secondary syphilis, causing a flu-like illness and skin sores. It then lies dormant for anywhere from 3–40 years when the final debilitating, and sometimes fatal, stage of syphilis develops. Syphilis is generally treated with penicillin injections.
- Hepatitis B and HIV can be passed on sexually. A vaccine can protect against hepatitis B.