Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are a growing problem, affecting millions of people around the globe. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 1 million sexually transmitted infections are acquired each day worldwide. In this blog, we explore how STIs are treated and what you can do to avoid contracting (and spreading) these infections.
What Are Sexually Transmitted Infections?
Before discussing how to prevent and treat sexually transmitted infections, it may be helpful to explain what these infections are, how they differ from sexually transmitted diseases, and what symptoms they produce. A sexually transmitted infection is a bacterial, parasitic, or viral infection that’s commonly spread through anal, oral, or vaginal intercourse. These infections are often transmitted via bodily fluids (e.g., blood, semen, or vaginal fluid) or skin-to-skin contact.
To date, researchers have identified more than 30 different bacteria, parasites, and viruses that can be transmitted through sexual contact. Some of the most common STIs include:
- Hepatitis B
- Herpes simplex virus (HSV)
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
It’s important to note that while STIs are commonly spread through sexual contact, mothers can also pass certain ones to their children during pregnancy or when they give birth or breastfeed. They can also be spread by sharing needles and engaging in other activities that involve an exchange of bodily fluids.
Sexually Transmitted Infections Versus Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Many people assume that sexually transmitted infections are the same thing as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), often using the terms interchangeably. However, that’s actually not true. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explained in its 2021 Sexually Transmitted Infections Treatment Guidelines, the term ‘sexually transmitted infection’ (STI) refers to a pathogen that causes infection through sexual contact, whereas the term ‘sexually transmitted disease’ (STD) refers to a recognizable disease state that has developed from an infection.” In other words, an STI is an infection that hasn’t yet progressed into a disease. Once the infection starts damaging bodily structures and/or disrupting normal bodily functions, it can instead be referred to as an STD.
In some instances, STIs never develop into sexually transmitted diseases. For example, many HPV infections resolve on their own before progressing to the point where they would be considered diseases. But if an HPV infection causes genital warts or cervical cancer, then it will start being referred to as a sexually transmitted disease instead of a sexually transmitted infection.
Common Symptoms of Sexually Transmitted Infections
Different types of STIs produce different sets of symptoms. With that being said, some common signs include:
- Bumps or sores in or around the mouth, genitals, or rectal area
- Unusual discharge from the genitals
- Pain or a burning sensation while urinating
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Pain within the lower abdomen
- Swollen lymph nodes
- A rash affecting the torso, hands, or feet
- Unusual vaginal bleeding (in women)
It’s important to remember that many STIs are asymptomatic, meaning that they don’t produce any noticeable symptoms.
STIs Affect Millions of People
Know Your Risks
Consult with a primary care provider promptly if you think you may have contracted an STI to prevent further complications.REQUEST APPOINTMENT
How to Prevent Sexually Transmitted Infections
The only way to fully protect against sexually transmitted infections is to engage in abstinence (of course, you should also avoid sharing needles and other dangerous practices). However, if you do choose to have sex, there are numerous steps you can take to avoid spreading or contracting an STI.
In addition to helping prevent pregnancy, condoms can help avoid spreading STIs (for oral sex, you could alternatively use a dental dam). Condoms are most effective against infections that are transmitted through bodily fluids (e.g., chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, and trichomoniasis). However, it’s important to keep in mind that certain infections can affect the skin outside the genitals, in areas that wouldn’t be covered by a condom. As such, condoms aren’t as effective against infections that are spread through skin-to-skin contact (e.g., herpes, HPV, and syphilis).
There are currently two vaccines available that help protect against sexually transmitted infections—one for hepatitis B and another for HPV—and researchers are diligently working to develop others. A trained medical provider will be able to let you know whether you’re a candidate for one or both of these vaccinations.
If you and your partner are both free of any sexually transmitted infections or diseases, then agreeing to have sexual relations with only each other and no one else can help you both avoid an infection. Keep in mind, however, that no matter how much you may trust your partner, there is never a 100% guarantee that they will be faithful. If you choose to follow this approach, both you and your partner should be tested for sexually transmitted infections and ensure that your results are negative before you begin engaging in sexual conduct.
Take Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis
If you have a higher-than-normal risk of contracting HIV—for example, if your partner has HIV, you’ve been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease within the past six months, or you regularly have sex without a condom—then taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) every day can help lower your chances of developing HIV. It’s important to note, though, that PrEP doesn’t protect against other types of sexually transmitted infections. An experienced medical provider can help you determine whether PrEP is right for your specific needs.
If you’re sexually active, you should attend regular doctor visits and ask to be screened for sexually transmitted infections and diseases. While getting screened won’t do anything to prevent you from contracting a sexually transmitted infection, it will reduce the chances of you unknowingly spreading one to a sexual partner if you’re infected. Plus, in many cases, receiving an early diagnosis will make your condition easier to treat.
What Does Sexually Transmitted Infection Treatment Entail?
If you’re concerned that you might have a sexually transmitted infection, it’s important to promptly consult with a professional, since these infections can often lead to more serious complications if left untreated. A medical provider will likely perform a physical examination and order testing to confirm your diagnosis, possibly including blood, fluid, or urine testing.
Certain STIs are curable, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis. These infections are generally treated using antibiotics. If you’re prescribed antibiotics to treat one of these infections, it’s important that you take all of the prescribed doses, even if your symptoms resolve before you finish the medication. You should also refrain from having sex until you’ve completed the antibiotic regimen and any sores have healed.
Other infections currently have no cure, such as hepatitis B, herpes, HIV, and HPV. These infections can still be treated, but the goal of treatment will instead be to manage symptoms and keep the condition from progressing. For example, if you’re diagnosed with herpes or HIV, you may be prescribed antiviral medication.
The Local Provider to Choose for Sexually Transmitted Infection Treatment
If you think you might have a sexually transmitted infection, it’s important to promptly seek treatment from an experienced provider of family medicine. Fortunately, if you’re in Watergrass or a nearby community, you can trust Florida Medical Clinic to supply you with the first-rate care you deserve. Click here to request an appointment with Dr. Ayazo at our Watergrass office, which you’ll find conveniently located at 7760 Curley Road in Wesley Chapel, FL.
About Dr. Michelle Ayazo, MD
Born in Bogotá, Colombia, and raised in Florida, Dr. Ayazo earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Miami, attended medical school at the Florida State University College of Medicine, and completed her residency at the University of South Florida. As a board-certified family physician, she works hard to provide her patients with the best possible care.