Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Sexually transmitted diseases (also known as STDs and once called venereal diseases or VD) are infectious diseases that spread from person to person through intimate contact. STDs affect guys and girls of all ages and backgrounds who are having sex — it doesn't matter if they're rich or poor.

Unfortunately, STDs have become common among teens. Because teens are more at risk for getting some STDs, it's important to learn what you can do to protect yourself.

STDs are more than just an embarrassment. They're a serious health problem. If untreated, some STDs can cause permanent damage, such as infertility (the inability to have a baby) and even death (in the case of HIV/AIDS).

How STDs Spread

One reason STDs spread is because people think they need to have sexual intercourse to become infected. That's wrong. A person can get some STDs, like herpes or genital warts, through skin-to-skin contact with an infected area or sore. Another myth about STDs is that you can't get them if you have oral or anal sex. That's also wrong because the viruses or bacteria that cause STDs can enter the body through tiny cuts or tears in the mouth and anus, as well as the genitals.

STDs also spread easily because you can't tell whether someone has an infection. In fact, some people with STDs don't even know that they have them. These people are in danger of passing an infection on to their sex partners without even realizing it.

Some of the things that increase a person's chances of getting an STD are:

  • Sexual activity at a young age. The younger a person starts having sex, the greater his or her chances of becoming infected with an STD.

  • Lots of sex partners. People who have sexual contact — not just intercourse, but any form of intimate activity — with many different partners are more at risk than those who stay with the same partner.

  • Unprotected sex. Latex condoms are the only form of birth control that reduce your risk of getting an STD. Spermicides, diaphragms, and other birth control methods may help prevent pregnancy, but they don't protect a person against STDs.

Preventing and Treating STDs

As with many other diseases, prevention is key. It's much easier to prevent STDs than to treat them. The only way to completely prevent STDs is to abstain from all types of sexual contact. If someone is going to have sex, the best way to reduce the chance of getting an STD is by using a condom.

People who are considering having sex should get regular gynecological or male genital examinations. There are two reasons for this. First, these exams give doctors a chance to teach people about STDs and protecting themselves. And second, regular exams give doctors more opportunities to check for STDs while they're still in their earliest, most treatable stage.

In order for these exams and visits to the doctor to be helpful, people need to tell their doctors if they are thinking about having sex or if they have already started having sex. This is true for all types of sex — oral, vaginal, and anal.

Don't let embarrassment at the thought of having an STD keep you from seeking medical attention. Waiting to see a doctor may allow a disease to progress and cause more damage. If you think you may have an STD, or if you have had a partner who may have an STD, you should see a doctor right away.

If you don't have a doctor or prefer not to see your family doctor, you may be able to find a local clinic in your area where you can get an exam confidentially. Some national and local organizations operate STD hotlines staffed by trained specialists who can answer your questions and provide referrals. Calls to these hotlines are confidential. One hotline you can call for information is the National STD Hotline at 1-800-227-8922.

Not all infections in the genitals are caused by STDs. Sometimes people can get symptoms that seem very like those of STDs, even though they've never had sex. For girls, a yeast infection can easily be confused with an STD. Guys may worry about bumps on the penis that turn out to be pimples or irritated hair follicles. That's why it's important to see a doctor if you ever have questions about your sexual health.

For more information about the signs, symptoms, and treatments of some common STDs, click on the links below.

  • Chlamydia

  • Genital Herpes (HSV-2) 

  • Genital Warts 

  • Gonorrhea

  • Hepatitis B (HBV)

  • HIV and AIDS

  • Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)

  • Pubic Lice (Crabs)

  • Syphilis

  • Trichomoniasis

Chlamydia 

What Is It?

Chlamydia (pronounced: kluh-mid-ee-uh) is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) that is caused by bacteria called Chlamydia trachomatis. Although you may not have heard its name, chlamydia is one of the most common STDs. Because there often aren't any symptoms, though, lots of people can have chlamydia and not know it.

The bacteria can move from one person to another through sexual intercourse, and possibly through oral-genital contact. If someone touches bodily fluids that contain the bacteria and then touches his or her eye, a chlamydial eye infection is possible. Chlamydia also can be passed from a mother to her baby while the baby is being delivered. This can cause pneumonia and conjuntivitis, which can become very serious for the baby if it's not treated. You can't catch chlamydia from a towel, doorknob, or toilet seat.

How Does a Girl Know She Has It?

It can be difficult for a girl to know whether she has chlamydia because most girls don't have any symptoms. Chlamydia may cause an unusual vaginal discharge or pain during urination. Some girls with chlamydia also have pain in their lower abdomens, pain during sexual intercourse, or bleeding between menstrual periods. Sometimes a chlamydia infection can cause a mild fever, muscle aches, or headache.

How Does a Guy Know He Has It?

Like a girl, a guy can also have a difficult time telling whether he has chlamydia. Some guys may have a discharge from the tip of the penis (the urethra — where urine comes out), or experience itching or burning sensations around the penis. Rarely, the testicles may become swollen. Many times, a guy with chlamydia may have few or no symptoms, so he might not even know he has it.

When Do Symptoms Appear?

Someone who has contracted chlamydia may see symptoms a week later. In some people, the symptoms take up to 3 weeks to appear, and many people never develop any symptoms.

What Can Happen?

If left untreated in girls, chlamydia can cause an infection of the urethra (where urine comes out) and inflammation (swelling and soreness caused by the infection) of the cervix. It can also lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which is an infection of the uterus, ovaries, and/or fallopian tubes. PID can cause infertility and ectopic (tubal) pregnancies later in life.

If left untreated in guys, chlamydia can cause inflammation of the urethra and epididymis (the structure attached to the testicle that helps transport sperm).

How Is It Treated?

If you think you may have chlamydia or if you have had a partner who may have chlamydia, you need to see your family doctor, adolescent doctor, or gynecologist. Some local health clinics, such as Planned Parenthood, can also test and treat people for chlamydia.

The doctor will do an exam that may include swabbing the vagina or penis for secretions, which will then be analyzed. Sometimes doctors can diagnose chlamydia by testing a person's urine. Talk to your doctor about which test is best for you.

If you are diagnosed with chlamydia, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics, which should clear up the infection in 7 to 10 days. Anyone with whom you've had sex will also need to be tested and treated for chlamydia because that person may be infected but not have any symptoms. This includes any sexual partners in the last 2 months or your last sexual partner if it has been more than 2 months since your last sexual experience. It is very important that someone with a chlamydia infection abstain from having sex until they and their partner have been treated.

If a sexual partner has chlamydia, quick treatment will reduce his or her risk of complications and will lower your chances of being reinfected if you have sex with that partner again. (You can become infected with chlamydia again even after you have been treated because having chlamydia does not make you immune to it.)

It's better to prevent chlamydia than to treat it, and the only way to completely prevent the infection is to abstain from all types of sexual intercourse. If you do have sex, use a latex condom every time. This is the only birth control method that will help prevent chlamydia.

Genital Herpes (HSV-2)

What Is It?

Genital herpes is caused by a virus called herpes simplex (HSV). There are two different types of herpes virus that cause genital herpes — HSV-1 and HSV-2. Most forms of genital herpes are HSV-2. But a person with HSV-1 (the type of virus that causes cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth) can transmit the virus through oral sex to another person's genitals.

HSV-2 is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). It causes herpes sores in the genital area and is transmitted through vaginal, oral, or anal sex, especially from unprotected sex. Because the virus does not live outside the body for long, you cannot catch genital herpes from an object, such as a toilet seat.

Symptoms of a Genital Herpes Outbreak

Someone who has been exposed to the genital herpes virus may not be aware of the infection and may never have an outbreak of sores. However, if a person does have an outbreak, the symptoms can cause significant discomfort.

Someone with genital herpes may first notice itching or pain, followed by sores that appear a few hours to a few days later. The sores, which may appear on the vagina, penis, scrotum, buttocks, or anus, start out as red bumps that soon turn into red, watery blisters. The sores may make it very painful to urinate. The sores may open up, ooze fluid or bleed, and then heal within the next 2 to 4 weeks.

The entire genital area may feel very tender or painful, and the person may have flu-like symptoms including fever, headache, and swollen lymph nodes. If someone has an outbreak in the future, it will tend to be less severe and shorter in duration, with the sores healing in about 10 days.

How Long Until Symptoms Appear?

Someone who has been exposed to genital herpes will notice genital itching and/or pain about 2 to 20 days after being infected with the virus. The sores usually appear within days afterward.

What Can Happen?

After the herpes blisters disappear, a person may think the virus has gone away — but it's actually hiding in the body. Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can stay hidden away in the body until the next herpes outbreak, when the virus reactivates itself and the painful sores return.

Over time, the herpes virus can reactivate itself again and again, causing discomfort and episodes of sores each time. Usually a person has about four to five herpes outbreaks each year — but in some people, the number of outbreaks will lessen over time.

There is no cure for herpes; it will always remain in the body and can always be passed to another person with any form of unprotected sex. This is the case even if blisters aren't present on the genitals. Many cases of genital herpes are transmitted when symptoms are not present.

Genital herpes also increases the risk of HIV infection. This is because HIV can enter the body more easily whenever there's a break in the skin (such as a sore) during unprotected sexual contact. In addition, if a pregnant woman with genital herpes has an active infection during childbirth, the newborn baby is at risk for getting herpes infection. Herpes infection in a newborn can cause meningitis (an inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord), seizures, and brain damage.

How Is It Prevented?

The only surefire way to prevent genital herpes is abstinenceabstinence. Teens who do have sex must properly use a latex condom every time they have any form of sexual intercourse (vaginal, oral, or anal sex). Girls receiving oral sex should have their partners use dental dams as protection. These sheets of thin latex can be purchased online or from many pharmacies.

If one partner has a herpes outbreak, avoid sex — even with a condom or dental dam — until all sores have healed. Herpes can be passed sexually even if a partner has no sores or other signs and symptoms of an outbreak.

How Is It Treated?

If you think you may have genital herpes or if you have had a partner who may have genital herpes, see your family doctor, adolescent doctor, gynecologist, or health clinic for a diagnosis. Right now, there is no cure for genital herpes, but a doctor can prescribe antiviral medication to help control recurring HSV-2 and clear up the painful sores. The doctor can also tell you how to keep the sores clean and dry and suggest other methods to ease the discomfort when the virus reappears

Genital Warts 

What Are They?

Genital warts are warts that are located near or in the genital areas. In a female, that means on or near the vulva (the outside genital area), vagina, cervix, or anus. In a male, that means near or on the penis, scrotum, or anus.

Warts appear as bumps or growths. They can be flat or raised, single or many, small or large. They tend to be whitish or flesh colored. They are not always easy to see with the naked eye, and many times a person with genital warts doesn't know that they are there.

Genital warts are caused by a group of viruses called HPV (short for human papillomavirus). There are more than 100 types of HPV. Some of them cause the regular kind of warts you see on people's hands and feet — these common warts usually are caused by types of viruses that are different from those that cause genital warts.

More than 30 types of HPV cause genital warts. Genital warts can be passed from person to person through intimate sexual contact (vaginal, oral, or anal sex). In some rare cases, genital warts are transmitted from a mother to her baby during childbirth. You cannot catch genital warts from a towel, doorknob, or toilet seat.

HPV infections are common in teens and young adults. As many as 1 in 2 people can have them. The more sexual partners someone has, the more likely it is that the person will get an HPV infection.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

Most HPV infections have no signs or symptoms. So someone can be infected and pass the disease on to another person without knowing. However, some people do get visible warts.

People often don't have any symptoms from genital warts — the warts usually do not hurt or itch, which is one reason why people may not know they have them. Doctors can diagnose warts by examining the skin closely (sometimes with a magnifying glass) and using a special solution to make them easier to see. A Pap smear (a test that is performed during a gynecologic exam) and other tests can help diagnose an HPV infection.

Experts believe that when a wart is present, the virus is active and more likely to be contagious. When the wart disappears, the virus is still there but may be less likely to spread.

How Long Until You See the Symptoms?

A person who has been exposed to genital warts may have warts appear any time from several weeks to several months after exposure. Sometimes warts can take even longer to appear; the virus can live in the body for a very long time without causing any symptoms. Because many people who are infected with HPV don't show any symptoms, it's important for anyone who is having sex to get regular medical checkups.

What Can Happen?

Sometimes, if left untreated, genital warts may grow bigger and multiply. Often, they go away on their own without treatment — but this doesn't mean people can ignore genital warts. Some types of genital warts are especially worrisome for girls because HPV can cause problems with the cervix (the opening to the uterus that is located at the top of the vagina) that may lead to cervical cancer.

Since HPV can have such serious consequences, girls who have had sex should see a gynecologist, who can test for HPV with a Pap smear.

How Are Genital Warts Prevented?

The only surefire way to prevent genital warts is abstinence (the decision not to have sex). Teens who do have sex can get some protection by properly using a latex condom every time they have any form of sexual intercourse (vaginal, oral, or anal sex). Condoms may not give complete protection because the virus can spread from the areas of the genitals not covered by the condom. Condoms also reduce the risk of other sexually transmitted infections as well as pregnancy.

The U.S. government recently approved a vaccine that protects against some of the strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.

How Are They Treated?

There is no cure that will get rid of the HPV virus completely. But treatments can reduce the number of warts — or help them go away faster. When the warts disappear, the HPV virus is still there, though it may not spread as easily. If you are having sex, think you may have genital warts, or if you have had a partner who may have genital warts, you need to see your doctor or gynecologist. If the warts are not obviously visible, doctors can detect the presence of HPV in girls through a Pap smear. Doctors can examine a guy to see if he has warts.

Your doctor will do an examination, make a diagnosis, and then provide treatment, if necessary. There are a number of different treatments. Depending on where the warts are located, how big they are, and how many there are, your doctor can treat them in several ways. Some genital warts can be treated by putting special medications on them. If warts are large, the doctor may carefully "freeze" them off by using a chemical or laser treatment to remove them.

Because HPV lives in the skin, warts can come back. So you may need to visit the doctor again. Anyone with whom you've had sex also should be checked for genital warts.

Not all bumps on a person's genitals are warts. Some can be pimples, some can be other types of infections or growths. An exam by a doctor can help determine what a bump is.

Almost everyone who gets a genital wart gets upset, and it's normal to be worried. Talk to your doctor or nurse about what it means to have HPV and what you can do.

Gonorrhea

What Is It?

Gonorrhea (pronounced: gah-nuh-ree-uh) is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae. The bacteria can be passed from one person to another through vaginal, oral, or anal sex, even when the person who is infected has no symptoms. It can also be passed from a mother to her baby during birth. You cannot catch gonorrhea from a towel, a doorknob, or a toilet seat.

How Does a Girl Know She Has It?

A girl who has gonorrhea may have no symptoms at all or her symptoms may be so mild that she doesn't notice them until they become more severe. In some cases, girls will feel a burning sensation when they urinate, or they will have a yellow-green vaginal discharge. Girls may also experience vaginal bleeding between menstrual periods.

If the infection becomes more widespread and moves into the uterus or fallopian tubes, it may cause abdominal pain, fever, and pain during sexual intercourse, as well as the symptoms above. (This widespread infection is called pelvic inflammatory disease or PID.)

How Does a Guy Know He Has It?

Guys who have gonorrhea are much more likely to notice symptoms, although a guy can have gonorrhea and not know it. Guys often feel a burning sensation when they urinate, and yellowish-white discharge may ooze out of the urethra (at the tip of the penis).

How Long Until There Are Symptoms?

Symptoms usually appear 2 to 7 days after a person has been exposed to gonorrhea, and in girls they may appear even later.

What Can Happen?

Gonorrhea can be very dangerous if it is left untreated, even in someone who has mild or no symptoms. In girls, the infection can move into the uterus, fallopian tubes, and ovaries (causing PID) and can lead to scarring and infertility (the inability to have a baby). Gonorrhea infection during pregnancy can cause problems for the newborn baby, including meningitis (an inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord) and an eye infection that can result in blindness if it is not treated.

In guys, gonorrhea can spread to the epididymis (the structure attached to the testicle that helps transport sperm), causing pain and swelling in the testicular area. This can create scar tissue that might make a guy infertile.

In both guys and girls, untreated gonorrhea can affect other organs and parts of the body including the throat, eyes, heart, brain, skin, and joints, although this is less common.

How Is It Treated?

If you think you may have gonorrhea or if you have had a partner who may have gonorrhea, you need to see your doctor or gynecologist. He or she will do an exam which may include swabbing the vagina or penis for discharge, which will then be analyzed. Sometimes doctors can diagnose gonorrhea by testing a person's urine. Talk to your doctor about which test is best for you. The doctor may also test for other STDs, such as syphilis or chlamydia.

If you are diagnosed with gonorrhea, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. Anyone with whom you've had sex should also be tested and treated for gonorrhea immediately. This includes any sexual partners in the last 2 months, or your last sexual partner if it has been more than 2 months since your last sexual experience. If a sexual partner has gonorrhea, quick treatment will reduce the risk of complications for that person and will lower your chances of being reinfected if you have sex with that partner again. (You can become infected with gonorrhea again even after you have been treated because having gonorrhea does not make you immune to it.)

It's better to prevent gonorrhea than to treat it, and the only way to completely prevent the infection is to abstain from all types of sexual intercourse. If you do have sex, use a latex condom every time. This is the only birth control method that will help prevent gonorrhea.

Hepatitis B (HBV)

What Is It?

Hepatitis (pronounced: hep-uh-tie-tiss) is a disease of the liver. It is usually caused by a virus, although it can also be caused by long-term overuse of alcohol or other toxins (poisons).

Although there are several different types of hepatitis, hepatitis B is a type that can move from one person to another through blood and other bodily fluids. It can be transmitted through sexual intercourse and through needles — such as those shared by intravenous drug or steroid users who have the virus, or tattoo needles that haven't been properly sterilized. A pregnant woman can also pass hepatitis B to her unborn baby. You cannot catch hepatitis B from an object, such as a toilet seat.

What Are the Symptoms?

Someone with hepatitis B may have symptoms similar to those caused by other viral infections, such as the flu — for example, tiredness, nausea, loss of appetite, mild fever, and vomiting — as well as abdominal pain or pain underneath the right ribcage where the liver is.

Hepatitis B can also cause jaundice, which is a yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes, and may cause the urine to appear brownish.

How Long Until Symptoms Appear?

Someone who has been exposed to hepatitis B may have symptoms 1 to 4 months later. Some people with hepatitis B don't notice symptoms until they become quite severe. Some have few or no symptoms, but even someone who doesn't notice any symptoms can still transmit the disease to others. Some people carry the virus in their bodies and are contagious for the rest of their lives.

What Can Happen?

Hepatitis B can be very dangerous to a person's health, leading to liver damage and an increased risk of liver cancer. Of babies born to women who have the hepatitis B virus, 90% will have the virus unless they receive a special immune injection and the first dose of hepatitis B vaccine at birth.

How Is It Prevented?

Because hepatitis B can easily be transmitted through blood and most body fluids, it can be prevented by:

  • abstaining from sex (not having oral, vaginal, or anal sex)

  • always using latex condoms for all types of sexual intercourse

  • avoiding contact with an infected person's blood

  • not using intravenous drugs or sharing any drug paraphernalia

  • not sharing things like toothbrushes or razors

Tattoo parlors sometimes reuse needles without properly sterilizing them, so be sure to research and choose tattoo and piercing providers carefully.

To help prevent the spread of hepatitis B, health care professionals wear gloves at all times when in contact with blood or body fluids, and are usually required to be immunized against the hepatitis B virus.

There is an immunization (vaccine) against hepatitis B. The immunization is given as a series of three shots over a 6-month period. Newborn babies in the United States now routinely receive this immunization series. Teens who see their health care provider for yearly exams are also likely to be given the hepatitis B immunization if they haven't had it before. Immunization programs have been responsible for a significant drop in the number of cases of hepatitis B among teens over the past 10 years.

Sometimes, if someone has been recently exposed to the hepatitis B virus, a doctor may recommend a shot of immune globulin containing antibodies against the virus to try to prevent the person from coming down with the disease. For this reason, it's especially important to see a doctor quickly after any possible exposure to the virus.

How Is It Treated?

If you think you may have hepatitis B or if you have been intimate with someone who may have hepatitis B, you need to see your doctor or gynecologist. He or she will do blood tests, and if a diagnosis of hepatitis B is made, you may also be treated with medicines to help fight it. Sometimes, people need to be hospitalized for a little while if they are too sick to eat or drink. Most people with hepatitis B feel better within 6 months.

HIV and AIDS

What Is It?

AIDS is one of the most serious, deadly diseases in human history.

More than 20 years ago, doctors in the United States identified the first cases of AIDS in San Francisco and New York. Now there are an estimated 42 million people living with HIV or AIDS worldwide, and more than 3 million die every year from AIDS-related illnesses.

AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). HIV destroys a type of defense cell in the body called a CD4 helper lymphocyte (pronounced: lim-fuh-site). These lymphocytes are part of the body's immune system, the defense system that fights infectious diseases. But as HIV destroys these lymphocytes, people with the virus begin to get serious infections that they normally wouldn't — that is, they become immune deficient. The name for this condition is acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

As the medical community learns more about how HIV works, they've been able to develop drugs to inhibit it (meaning they interfere with its growth). These drugs have been successful in slowing the progress of the disease, and people with the disease now live much longer. But there is still no cure for HIV and AIDS.

Hundreds of U.S. teens become infected with HIV each year. HIV can be transmitted from an infected person to another person through blood, semen (also known as "cum," the fluid released from the penis when a male ejaculates), vaginal fluids, and breast milk.

The virus is spread through high-risk behaviors including:

  • unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal sexual intercourse ("unprotected" means not using a condom)

  • sharing needles, such as needles used to inject drugs (including needles used for injecting steroids) and those used for tattooing

People who have another sexually transmitted disease, such as syphilis, genital herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, or bacterial vaginosis are at greater risk for getting HIV during sex with infected partners.

If a woman with HIV is pregnant, her newborn baby can catch the virus from her before birth, during the birthing process, or from breastfeeding. If doctors know an expectant mother has HIV, they can usually prevent the spread of the virus from mother to baby. All pregnant teens and women should be tested for HIV so they can begin treatment if necessary.

How Does HIV Affect the Body?

A healthy body is equipped with CD4 helper lymphocyte cells (CD4 cells). These cells help the immune system function normally and fight off certain kinds of infections. They do this by acting as messengers to other types of immune system cells, telling them to become active and fight against an invading germ.

HIV attaches to these CD4 cells, infects them, and uses them as a place to multiply. In doing so, the virus destroys the ability of the infected cells to do their job in the immune system. The body then loses the ability to fight many infections.

Because their immune systems are weakened, people who have AIDS are unable to fight off many infections, particularly tuberculosis and other kinds of otherwise rare infections of the lung (such as Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia), the surface covering of the brain (meningitis), or the brain itself (encephalitis). People who have AIDS tend to keep getting sicker, especially if they are not taking antiviral medications properly.

AIDS can affect every body system. The immune defect caused by having too few CD4 cells also permits some cancers that are stimulated by viral illness to occur — some people with AIDS get forms of lymphoma and a rare tumor of blood vessels in the skin called Kaposi's sarcoma. Because AIDS is fatal, it's important that doctors detect HIV infection as early as possible so a person can take medication to delay the onset of AIDS.

How Do People Know They Have HIV?

Once a person's blood lacks the number of CD4 cells required to fight infections, or the person has signs of specific illnesses or diseases that occur in people with HIV infection, doctors make a diagnosis of AIDS.

Severe symptoms of HIV infection and AIDS may not appear for 10 years. And for years leading up to that, a person may not have symptoms of AIDS. The amount of time it takes for symptoms of AIDS to appear varies from person to person. Some people may feel and look healthy for years while they are infected with HIV. It is still possible to infect others with HIV, even if the person with the virus has absolutely no symptoms. You cannot tell simply by looking at someone whether he or she is infected.

When a person's immune system is overwhelmed by AIDS, the symptoms can include:

  • extreme weakness or fatigue

  • rapid weight loss

  • frequent fevers that last for several weeks with no explanation

  • heavy sweating at night

  • swollen lymph glands

  • minor infections that cause skin rashes and mouth, genital, and anal sores

  • white spots in the mouth or throat

  • chronic diarrhea

  • a cough that won't go away

  • trouble remembering things

Girls may also experience severe vaginal yeast infections that don't respond to usual treatment, as well as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).

How Can It Be Prevented?

One of the reasons that HIV is so dangerous is that a person can have the virus for a long time without knowing it. That person can then spread the virus to others through high-risk behaviors. HIV transmission can be prevented by:

  • abstaining from sex (not having oral, vaginal, or anal sex)

  • always using latex condoms for all types of sexual intercourse

  • avoiding contact with the bodily fluids through which HIV is transmitted

  • never sharing needles

How Is It Diagnosed and Treated?

If you think that you may have HIV or AIDS or if you have had a partner who may have HIV or AIDS, see your family doctor, adolescent doctor, or gynecologist. He or she will talk with you and perform tests. The doctor may do a blood test or a swab of the inside of your cheek. Depending on what type of test is done, results may take from a few hours to several days.

People can also get tested for HIV/AIDS at special AIDS clinics around the country. Clinics offer both anonymous (meaning the clinic doesn't know a person's name) and confidential (meaning they know who a person is but keep it private) testing. Most AIDS testing centers will ask you to follow up for counseling to get your results, whether the test is negative or positive.

If you're not sure how to find a doctor or get an AIDS test, you can contact the National AIDS Hotlines at (800) 342-AIDS (English) or (800) 344-7432 (Spanish). A specialist there will explain what you should do next.

There is no cure for AIDS, which makes prevention so important. Combinations of antiviral drugs and drugs that boost the immune system have allowed many people with HIV to resist infections, stay healthy, and prolong their lives, but these medications are not a cure. Right now there is no vaccine to prevent HIV and AIDS, although researchers are working on developing one.

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)

Pelvic inflammatory disease, sometimes called PID, is a progressive (meaning it becomes worse over time) infection of the fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, or ovaries. Most girls develop PID as a result of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as chlamydia or gonorrhea.

In the United States, each year more than a million women will develop PID, with the highest infection rate amongst teenagers. Teen girls with multiple partners and those who don't use condoms are most likely to get STDs and are at risk for PID. If PID goes untreated, it can lead to internal scarring that can result in chronic pelvic pain, infertility, or a tubal pregnancy.

What Are the Symptoms of PID?

PID can cause severe symptoms or very mild to no symptoms. Teens who do have symptoms however, may experience:

  • pain and tenderness in the lower abdomen

  • large amounts of foul-smelling or abnormally colored discharge

  • pain during sexual intercourse

  • heavier than normal periods

  • more painful periods with more cramps than usual

  • spotting between periods

  • chills, fever, and vomiting

  • increased tiredness

  • loss of appetite

  • backache and perhaps even difficulty walking

  • painful or more frequent urination

What Can Happen if You Get PID?

Any teen girl with symptoms of an STD should get medical care as soon as possible. An untreated STD has a greater chance of becoming PID.

If it is not treated or goes unrecognized, the PID can continue to spread through a girl's reproductive organs and may lead to long-term reproductive problems:

  • PID can cause scarring in a girl's ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus, and widespread scarring may lead to infertility (the inability to have a baby). A teen girl or woman who has had PID three times (or more) has an almost 50% chance of being infertile.

  • If someone who has had PID does get pregnant, scarring of the fallopian tubes may cause the fertilized egg to implant in one of the fallopian tubes rather than in the uterus. The fetus would then begin to develop in the tube, where there is no room for it to keep growing. This is called an ectopic pregnancy. An untreated ectopic pregnancy could cause the fallopian tube to burst suddenly, which might lead to life-threatening bleeding in a pregnant woman.

  • Untreated PID also puts a woman at risk for a tubo-ovarian abscess (TOA). A TOA is a collection of bacteria, pus, and fluid that occurs in the fallopian tube. It is most often seen in teens. A TOA is also more likely to occur in teens or adult women who use intrauterine devices (IUDs) as birth control. A teen girl with a TOA often looks sick and has a fever and pain that makes it difficult to walk. The abscess will be treated in the hospital with antibiotics, and surgery may be needed to remove it.

Pubic Lice (Crabs)

What Are They?

Pubic lice are tiny insects that can crawl from the pubic hair of one person to the pubic hair of another person during sexual intercourse. People can also catch pubic lice from infested clothing, towels, and bedding. Once they are on a person's body, the insects live by sucking blood from their host. Pubic lice are sometimes called "crabs" because when seen under a microscope they look like tiny crabs.

What Are the Symptoms?

Pubic lice cause intense itching. A person who has been exposed to pubic lice may notice tiny tan to grayish-white insects crawling in their pubic hair. He or she may also see tiny oval-shaped, yellow to white blobs called nits clinging to the hair. Nits are about the size of a pinhead, and are the louse eggs. Nits can't be easily removed from the hair with the fingers — "nit combs" made especially to remove the eggs are sold at drugstores and many grocery stores.

Someone who has been exposed to pubic lice will usually notice symptoms within a week. But it can take up to 2–3 weeks for the mature lice to appear. That means itching may start in the first week, but people may not actually notice the lice for 2–3 weeks after they have been exposed. The primary symptom of pubic lice is itching, but lice can also leave bluish-grayish marks on the thighs and pubic area from bites.

What Can Happen?

It's unusual for pubic lice to create any serious health problems, but the itching can be very uncomfortable, and it's easy to transmit pubic lice to others. The female louse survives an average of 25 to 30 days and each can lay 20 to 30 eggs. Lice can also live away from the body for 1 to 2 days. So it's important to get properly diagnosed and treated, or it can take forever to get rid of them.

How Is It Treated?

If you think you may have pubic lice or if you have had a partner who may have pubic lice, see a doctor or gynecologist right away. If the doctor diagnoses pubic lice, you may be prescribed medication or told to buy an over-the-counter medicine that kills the lice and their eggs. The important thing to remember is that the treatment you use may need to be repeated after 7 to 10 days to kill any lice you didn't get the first time.

You will also need to dry clean or use very hot water and a hot dryer cycle to wash and dry all your bedding, towels, or recently worn clothing to properly kill the lice and their eggs. Anyone with whom you've had sex should also check for pubic lice immediately. Although condoms help protect against other STDs, a partner could still get pubic lice because the condom does not

Syphilis

What Is It?

Syphilis (pronounced: siff-ill-iss) is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) caused by a type of bacteria known as a spirochetespirochete (through a microscope, it looks like a corkscrew or spiral). It is extremely small and can live almost anywhere in the body.

The spirochetes that cause syphilis can be passed from one person to another through direct contact with a syphilis sore during sexual intercourse (vaginal, anal, or oral sex). The infection can also be passed from a mother to her baby during pregnancy. You cannot catch syphilis from a towel, doorknob, or toilet seat.

In the 1990s there was a decrease in the number of people infected with syphilis. However, more recently there has been a steady increase in reported cases of syphilis, especially in young adults and in men who have male sexual partners.

In its early stages, syphilis is easily treatable. However, if left untreated, it can cause serious problems — even death. So it's important to understand as much as you can about this disease.

What Are the Symptoms?

Syphilis occurs in several different stages:

Primary Syphilis

In the first stage of syphilis, red, firm, and sometimes wet sores that don't hurt appear on the vagina, rectum, penis, or mouth. There is often just one sore, but there may be several. This type of sore is called a chancre (pronounced: shang-ker). Chancres appear on the part of the body where the spirochetes moved from one person to another. Someone with syphilis may also have swollen glands during this first stage.

After a few weeks, the chancre will disappear, but that's not a sign that the disease has gone away. In fact, if the infection hasn't been treated, the disease will continue to get worse.

Syphilis is highly contagious during this first stage. Unfortunately, it can be easy to miss because the chancres are painless and can appear in areas that may not be easy to see, like in the mouth, under the foreskin, or on the anus. This means that people may not know that they are infected, and can pass the disease on to others without realizing it.

Secondary Syphilis

If syphilis hasn't been treated yet, the person will usually break out in a rash (especially on the soles of the feet and palms of the hands) and may also notice flu-like symptoms, such as fever and achiness. Sometimes the rashes associated with syphilis can be very faint or look like rashes from other infections and, therefore, may not be noticed. Sores sometimes appear on the lips, mouth, throat, vagina, and anus — but many people with secondary syphilis don't have sores at all.

This secondary stage usually lasts 1 to 2 weeks and will go away with or without treatment. But if the infection hasn't been treated, the disease will continue to progress. Syphilis is still contagious during the secondary stage.

Latent Syphilis

If syphilis still hasn't been treated yet, the person will have a period of the illness called latent (hidden) syphilis. This means that all the signs of the disease go away, but the disease is still very much there. Even though the disease is "hiding," the spirochetes are still in the body. Syphilis can remain latent for many years.

Tertiary Syphilis

If the disease still hasn't been treated at this point, it becomes known as tertiary (or late-stage) syphilis. This means the spirochetes have spread all over the body and can affect the brain, the heart, the spinal cord, and bones. Symptoms of late syphilis can include difficulty walking, numbness, gradual blindness, and possibly even death.

How Long Until Symptoms Appear?

A person who has been exposed to the spirochetes that cause syphilis may notice a chancre from 10 days to 3 months later, though the average is 3 weeks. If the syphilis is not treated, the second stage of the disease may occur anywhere from about 2 to 10 weeks after the original sore (chancre). It's important to keep in mind that many people never notice any symptoms of syphilis. This means it is important to let your doctor know that you are having sex, so that he or she can test you for syphilis even if you don't have any symptoms.

What Can Happen?

Syphilis can be very dangerous to a person's health if left untreated. In both guys and girls, the spirochetes can spread throughout the whole body, infecting major organs. Brain damage and other serious health problems can occur, many of which can't be treated. A woman who is pregnant and hasn't been effectively treated is at great risk of putting her baby in danger. Untreated syphilis can also cause major birth defects. Syphilis also increases the risk of HIV infection because HIV can enter the body more easily when there's a sore present.

How Is It Treated?

If you think you may have syphilis or if you have had sexual contact with someone who may have syphilis, you need to see your doctor or gynecologist right away. As it can sometimes be difficult to spot chancres, it's important to get checked on a regular basis, especially if you have had unprotected sex and/or more than one sex partner.

Depending on the stage, the doctor can make a diagnosis by examining the discharge from chancres under a special microscope or by doing a blood test to look for signs of infection.

Early stages of syphilis are easily cured with antibiotics. Someone who has been infected for a while will need treatment for a longer period of time. Unfortunately, damage to the body from the late stage of syphilis cannot be treated. However, even in the late stage, it is important to get treatment. This can prevent further damage to the body. Anyone with whom you've had unprotected sex should also be checked for syphilis immediately.

How Is Syphilis Prevented?

The best way to prevent any STD is to not have sex. However, for people who decide to have sex, it's important to use protection and to have as few sexual partners as possible. Latex condoms are effective against most STDs; however, if there are any sores or rashes that cannot be covered by the condom, it's wise to not have sex until rashes or other skin breaks have healed.

Trichomoniasis

What Is It?

Trichomoniasis is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The parasite that causes trichomoniasistrichomoniasis can be passed from one person to another during sexual intercourse.

Unlike most STDs, the parasite can live for about an hour on damp towels, washcloths, and bathing suits. If someone uses these towels or washcloths or puts on the bathing suit, the disease may be passed on that way. The good news is that trichomoniasis is curable.

How Does a Girl Know She Has It?

A girl with trichomoniasis can get vaginitis, which is the medical term for inflammation of the vagina. A girl who has trichomoniasis will usually have vaginal discharge that can be gray or yellowish green, and may be foamy. This discharge may have a foul odor, and a girl's vagina may feel very itchy.

A girl with trichomoniasis may find it very painful to urinate. Trichomoniasis can also cause an achy abdomen and pain during sexual intercourse.

How Does a Guy Know He Has It?

In most cases, guys won't notice any symptoms. However, a guy who has trichomoniasis may notice some temporary irritation inside his penis or a mild burning feeling when he pees.

When Do Symptoms Appear?

Symptoms usually appear 5 to 28 days after a person has been exposed.

What Can Happen?

Trichomoniasis by itself isn't very dangerous to a person's health, but it can be uncomfortable. It can also make someone more susceptible to getting other STDs. In pregnant women, trichomoniasis can cause the baby to be born early or to be born with a low birth weight.

If a patient has trichomoniasis a doctor will typically also test for gonorrhea and chlamydia because these STDs sometimes occur together.

How Is It Treated?

If you think you may have trichomoniasis or if you have had a partner who may have trichomoniasis, you need to see your family doctor, adolescent doctor, or gynecologist. He or she will do an exam and swab the vagina or penis for secretions, which will then be tested.

Doctors usually prescribe antibiotics for people who are diagnosed with trichomoniasis. Sexual partners should be treated at the same time, and people being treated should not have sex until they have finished their treatment and no longer have symptoms.

It's better to prevent trichomoniasis than to treat it, of course. The only way to completely prevent infection is to not have any type of sexual intercourse (called abstinence). People who choose to have sex should use a latex condom every time. This is the only birth control method that will help prevent trichomoniasis.

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