Understanding STIs

My first introduction to STIs was when I was 14.

No, guys, not like that! My mother, a cardiologist, always believed in firmly and openly talking about health issues. While I can respect her openness and transparency, I’ll never forget her methods.

I came downstairs ­to wait for dinner while my mom was rustling about upstairs in her room. She then came running down the stairs like a little girl, holding ripped-out pages of an American Medical Association journal, all showcasing a wide range of STIs with detailed photographs of the most extreme outbreaks and symptoms.

“These will be the dangers you face in life if you don’t protect yourself,” she said morosely, before breaking into a laugh, and setting the table.

In case you weren’t lucky enough to consume images of genital warts with your meatloaf, I’ve taken the liberty to break down the various types of common STIs in the U.S. Also, since I host a sexual health web series, I decided that I should share my research with you, instead of just maintaining a questionable Internet search history on my computer. Unlike my mother, I don’t recommend reading this over dinner.

Chlamydia

What it is & Symptoms: Chlamydia is the popular kid at the party, as it is the most frequently reported STI in the United States.  It is a curable STI, spread through unprotected anal, oral or vaginal intercourse and exchange of body fluids. Known as the “silent infection,” many times, it remains symptomless. In fact, 50% of men and 75% of women with the infection actually show no signs.

However, if you do show symptoms, they can show up weeks after exposure, and may include burning during urination or abnormal vaginal or penile discharge.

Diagnosis & Treatment: Generally, doctors will test urine samples or take sample secretions from a man’s urethra or a women’s cervix.  If you test positive, the doctor will prescribe antibiotics that will rid you of the disease within 1–2 weeks. However, you should be sure to take the medication for the entire duration prescribed. Repeat infections are very common, so refrain from any sexual activity ‘til your follow up test comes back negative.

If left untreated, chlamydia can result in urethritis for men or potential reproductive issues for women.

Dinner Trivia Fact: Chlamydia has been around for a thousand years, but only in the 1960s was it finally classified as an STI. Talk about a drastic makeover.

Gonorrhea

What it is & Symptoms: Gonorrhea is also a curable STI transmitted through unprotected oral, anal, and vaginal intercourse and body fluid exchange with someone infected. Symptoms can appear 2–5 days after infections, but in men, symptoms make take months to show up. In fact, some don’t even have symptoms.

Some male symptoms may include burning and increased frequency when urinating, discharge from the penis, and swollen testicles. In women, symptoms are generally very mild and vague, often mistaken for a bladder or a vaginal infection.

Diagnosis and Treatment: Like chlamydia, gonorrhea is diagnosed through a urine sample and also treated with antibiotics. Generally, if you are positive for gonorrhea, you should also get tested for sister diseases, such as chlamydia and syphilis.

If left untreated, gonorrhea can spread to the blood and joints. For men, it can cause a painful condition in the tubes attached to the testicles, which can potentially lead to infertility. For women, it can spread to the uterus.

Dinner Trivia Fact: Gonorrhea is also known as “the clap.” Many people believe the name came from the French brothels, known as the les clapiers, because the men who frequented them eventually ended up with the infection. So basically, blame the French. 

Syphilis

What it is & Symptoms: Syphilis is a bacteria-based STI that is also curable. It can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with someone who is infected with syphilis sores. Symptoms can appear from 10–90 days after infection.  There are actually four stages of syphilis, with the first two being highly infectious.

Primary: One or more sores show up where syphilis has entered the body, generally near the genitals. The sore is firm, round and painless, and can easily go unnoticed. It lasts 3–6 weeks and goes away on its own, regardless of treatment. However, it can then progress to the second stage.

Secondary Stage:  Flu-like illness, a non-itchy rash covering the whole body or in patches, patchy hair loss, and white patches on the tongue or in the mouth are all symptoms.

Latent stage: If secondary stage syphilis is untreated, it can turn into latent. Here, the primary and secondary stage symptoms all clear up, even though the syphilis remains in the body. This latent stage can last for years before progressing.

Tertiary Stage: 15–30% of people infected with syphilis who don’t get treatment will go onto tertiary or late stage, where the disease can damage your brain, eyes, heart, blood vessels and bones. These problems can occur many years after the original infection.

Diagnosis & Treatment: Syphilis is diagnosed through a blood test and may be cured with about two weeks of antibiotics depending on the stage that it was discovered in.  If left undiagnosed, syphilis can spread to the brain over a long period of time, hence its reputation for driving a person “insane.”

Dinner Trivia Fact: Rumor has it that Christopher Columbus may have spread syphilis in Europe/Old World after catching it on his fateful trip to America in 1492. Suddenly, a t-shirt doesn’t look like such a bad travel souvenir.

Genital Warts

What it is & Symptoms: Genital warts are generally caused by a strain of HPV, which spreads through skin-to-skin contact during unprotected oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse. Many times, warts will take six weeks to six months, or sometimes years, after infection to show up. It’s important to note that the strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer are not the same types that cause warts.

Genital warts can be so tiny that you don’t see them, and can resemble flesh-colored bumps or cluster together, looking like cauliflower. They are found on the tip of the penis, scrotum, vagina, or in or around the anus.

Diagnosis & Treatment: Doctors can diagnose genital warts by examining them under a lens. There is no cure for HPV, but there are methods to treat visible warts that should only be done by a doctor. Doctors may give you a prescription cream, medication, or remove warts through surgery; however, since the virus itself cannot be cured, warts may return within 3 months of treatment.

Dinner Trivia Fact: There are over 120 strains of HPV, but the body can clear most strains. Only certain types advance to cancer or warts. Basically, your body is a soldier! How’s that for a positive body image?

Genital Herpes

What it is & Symptoms: Herpes is highly contagious and spreads through sexual fluids or saliva exchange with an infected person.

Herpes actually comes in two forms, the HSV1 and the HSV2 strains, which affect both men and women in the mouth or on the genitals. HSV1 strains are commonly known as cold sores that are found around the mouth; these are not the same as genital herpes, which are caused by HSV2 strains. Many times, herpes shows no symptoms, so those that are affected will not know. If you do have symptoms of genital herpes, some of them may include clear or white pearl-like blisters in the genital area and itchy, burning rashes. You’ll generally have an outbreak about 2-30 days after being infected.

Diagnosis & Treatment: A doctor can diagnose herpes through a blood test or by taking a sample from your sore. Once you have herpes, it will never go away. You can only manage how frequently you have an outbreak.

For treatment, your doctor will give you antiviral medications, so you can stay symptom-free longer. After the outbreak goes away (usually 2–4 weeks), the virus lies dormant in the cells, and can reoccur when you have any reduced immunity.

Dinner Trivia Fact: It’s estimated that 1 out of 5 Americans have genital herpes. This should make you look at your classmates at your high school reunion in a different light.

Important Note: If you test positive for any of these STIs, you should tell your partner and any previous partners that you may have potentially infected. For future sexual experiences, prevention is really the key. Take the necessary precautions by getting tested and discussing the results and options with your partner before engaging in sexual activity.

Shoot, if you need any help communicating, I can send some of my mother’s magazine images your way.

Photo by Michelle White

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