For a long time, discussions related to sex were laced with stigma. Fortunately, changing attitudes towards sex have made it possible to not only discuss sex more openly but also acknowledge it as a normal and indeed healthy part of life. For instance, sex is often treated as an academic topic and the subject of class discussions and research papers. The removal of stigma associated with sex has also led to discussions on urgent issues, chief of which is the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases or STDs. Every year, millions of people around the world are affected by STDs. While some STDs cause only minor infections, some can be serious and even fatal. According to the World Health Organization (2019), there are over 376 million new infections of STDs around the world every year. The massive rate of infection strongly indicates the need for solutions. Sexually transmitted diseases are a complex problem that requires comprehensive solutions. Apart from improving treatments for venereal diseases, solutions include education that encourages prevention of transmission or early detection. In line with spreading awareness, this paper discusses some of the most common sexually transmitted diseases and ways to prevent and address these health concerns.
Sexually transmitted diseases can be classified into various types depending on the pathogenic agent that causes the disease. Some diseases are caused by viruses, some by bacteria, and some by protozoa. One of the most common STDs is chlamydia, which is caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. According to the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, there are around 2.86 million new cases of chlamydia reported every year. The number is likely higher, however, as many people who have chlamydia do not show any signs or symptoms. Chlamydia can be transmitted through unprotected penetrative sex, i.e. oral, vaginal, or anal penetration. Some of the symptoms of chlamydia include a burning sensation when urinating, abnormal discharge from the vagina or penis, and testicular swelling in males. Chlamydia can also affect the rectum and cause pain, bleeding, and abnormal discharge. In more severe cases, a person may feel pain in the general pelvic area. When left untreated, chlamydia may lead to a condition known as pelvic inflammatory disease in women, ectopic pregnancy, and infertility. Pregnant women may also pass the bacterium to their newborn. Treatment for chlamydia involves administering antibiotics and follow-up tests to ensure that the infection does not return (CDC, 2020).
Another bacterial sexually transmitted disease is gonorrhea, which is caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Around 1.14 million new cases of gonorrhea are reported every year, making it one of the most common STDs. Like chlamydia, gonorrhea can be acquired through unprotected penetrative sex. Symptoms of gonorrhea in men include pain while urinating; a white, yellow, or green discharge from the penis; and pain in the scrotum due to the inflammation of the epididymis. Symptoms are more subtle in women, which makes it prone to being overlooked during consultations with doctors. These symptoms include pain while urinating, vaginal discharge, and bleeding in between menstrual periods. When the rectum is infected, symptoms may include itching, bleeding, and pain. If left untreated, gonorrhea can lead to complications like pelvic inflammatory disease and damage to reproductive organs in women as well as infertility in both men and women. In some cases, it can also lead to systemic infection that can be life-threatening. Gonorrhea can be treated with antibiotics (CDC, 2020).
Syphilis is another common sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. According to the CDC (2020), around 115,000 cases of syphilis were detected in 2018. Syphilis is transmitted when a person comes into direct contact with a syphilitic sore known as a chancre. It can also be transmitted through penetrative sex. Diagnosing syphilis can be difficult as its early symptoms are non-specific and sometimes mistaken for other diseases. The course of syphilis covers four stages. The primary stage involves the appearance of a single painless sore which heals with or without treatment. The secondary stage involves several sores breaking out in one or more parts of the body. In some cases the rashes appear on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. Lesions may also appear on the mucous membranes such as the mouth, anus, or vagina. This stage may also involve other symptom such as fever, sore throat, hair loss, weight loss, muscle pain, and sore throat. The third stage is the latent stage during which symptoms disappear and the infection remains hidden. This stage may last from a few months to years. The last stage is known as tertiary syphilis. During this stage, the syphilis reemerges and affects multiple organs. Though rare, this stage can be life threatening. Syphilis can also be passed by a mother to her unborn baby. Treatment of syphilis involves the antibiotic penicillin (CDC, 2020).
Another very common STD is trichomoniasis, which is caused by the protozoa Trichomonas vaginalis. The CDC states that there are around 3.7 million active cases of trichomoniasis in the country today, although only 30% show symptoms. The disease is transmitted through sexual intercourse. Symptoms in men include irritation or itching on the inside of the penis, burning sensation following urination, and abnormal discharge from the penis. The disease manifests in women as burning or itching of the genitals, discomfort during urination, and abnormal discharge from the vagina. Trichomoniasis can be treated with antiprotozoal agents such as tinidazole or metronidazole (CDC, 2020).
Genital herpes is also one of the most common STDs. This disease is caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 or type 2. Around 776,000 new cases of genital herpes are reported every year. Herpes can be transmitted from person to person through contact with lesions, genital secretions, oral secretions, and mucous membranes. The virus can be transmitted from an infected person even in the absence of lesions. The majority of cases of herpes do not show symptoms. Among those who do, symptoms often appear as blisters on areas such as the mouth, rectum, and genitals. These blisters eventually burst, leaving painful sores that heal in two to four weeks. Symptoms of herpes occur in periods known as outbreaks. These outbreaks decrease in severity and frequency over time. There is no cure for herpes, although antiviral agents can be used to prevent outbreaks and transmission of the virus (CDC, 2020).
One of the dreaded STDs is human immunodeficiency virus, also known as HIV. HIV is the virus that causes the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, around 38,000 new cases of HIV are detected every year. HIV is transmitted from person to person when infectious body fluids enter the bloodstream. These body fluids are semen, vaginal secretions, rectal secretions, blood, and breastmilk. The virus is often transmitted during anal or vaginal sex. For instance, infection occurs when virus from the semen enters the bloodstream of another person through open wounds or tears on mucous membranes. Sharing needles is also one of the main modes of transmission. The virus can be passed by an HIV-positive mother to her child during pregnancy, while giving birth, or when breastfeeding. Transmission through oral sex or deep open-mouthed kissing is also possible but extremely rare as these activities are considered very low risk. In some cases, the virus is transmitted when an HIV-negative person receives blood transfusion or organ transplantation from an HIV-positive person. Such cases are nevertheless uncommon (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2020).
Initial infection with HIV presents non-specific symptoms such as fever, diarrhea, weight loss, swollen lymph nodes, muscle pain, sore throat, and rashes. This typically occurs a few weeks following infection. The symptoms then disappear even without treatment. Initial infection is then followed by a period called latent infection. During this period, the virus remains in the body but does not cause any symptoms. This period may last for years. The virus affects the body by destroying immune cells and weakening the immune system. This renders an HIV-positive person vulnerable to other illnesses including those that usually do not affect people with healthy immune systems. HIV infection eventually progresses to AIDS when the immune system becomes extremely damaged. At this point, an individual may suffer severe weight loss, weakness, and vulnerability to other diseases. HIV currently does not have any cure. However, antiretroviral medications help prevent the progression of HIV to AIDS. Advancements in treatments have made it possible for people living with HIV to lead long healthy lives (Mayo Clinic, 2020).
The diseases mentioned above are just some of the most common sexually transmitted diseases today. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent transmission. One of these is through the correct and consistent use of protection such as latex condoms and dental dams. Staying in a mutually monogamous relationship also protects against acquiring STDs. Couples in a mutually monogamous relationship are also encouraged to test for STDs to ensure that neither are at risk for getting infected by the other in the event that one is asymptomatic. Reducing the number of sexual partners also lowers the risk for getting STDs (CDC, 2020). HIV-negative individuals can also lower their risk of acquiring HIV by taking pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP (Avert, 2019). Regular testing for these diseases, especially with HIV, also helps with early detection and treatment that prevents complications. For instance, early initiation of antiretroviral therapy in HIV-positive individuals helps prevent the degradation of the immune system. Similarly, detection of latent syphilis can help prevent the progression of the condition to tertiary syphilis. The key to observing these strategies is education, especially since intensive education is key to behavior change.
While sex is a satisfying and pleasurable experience, it is not without risks. Some of the most common sexually transmitted diseases are bacterial infections such as chlamydia and syphilis, protozoal infections such as trichomoniasis, and viral infections such as herpes and HIV. It is important, therefore, to be aware of these diseases through education, since awareness is the first step towards protection and a healthier life. For example, informing people of the health effects of smoking as well as drug abuse has been proven to help address these public health issues. Reexamining sex education in schools and including sensitive but essential topics such as the ethics of abortion can also aid in formulating new effective policies.
Avert. (2019). What is pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)? https://www.avert.org/hiv-transmission-prevention/prep
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). https://www.cdc.gov/std/default.htm
Mayo Clinic. (2020). HIV/AIDS – Symptoms and causes. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hiv-aids/symptoms-causes/syc-20373524
United States Department of Health and Human Services. (2020). HIV basics. https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics
World Health Organization. (2019). Sexually transmitted infections (STIs). https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/sexually-transmitted-infections-(stis)