There was a time when the worst things about having a sexually transmitted disease (or STD), were the physical discomfort from the symptoms and the embarrassment and stigma of having the condition. How times have changed!!
For starters, they’re not called venereal diseases or STDs anymore – they’re now known as Sexually Transmitted Infections or STI’s. More importantly, viruses such as HIV, Hepatitis B and C, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), and Herpes have changed the STI landscape such that debilitating chronic illness, cancers, and even death are possible outcomes of having an STI. It is also now known that both Ebola and Zika viruses can be transmitted through sexual intercourse because they’re present in the semen of infected men.
STIs or STDs, also known as venereal diseases, are infections or diseases that are passed from one person to another through sexual contact – usually spread by having vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Bacteria, viruses, or parasites that exist on the skin or mucus membranes of the male or female genital area can be transmitted. During sexual intercourse, certain organisms present in semen, vaginal secretions, saliva or blood, can also be transmitted from one person to another.
It may surprise you, that it is possible to get some STIs, such as syphilis, herpes, and genital lice from physical genital contact only, without actual sexual intercourse.
Why are STIs important?
There are different kinds of STIs and some are more serious than others. STIs are more than just infections of the genital tract. Most STIs cause damage to other parts of the body as well. If not detected and treated early, they can lead to serious complications. Some STIs are curable but others are NOT and can only be managed with the right medications.
STIs like HIV, Hepatitis B & C, Human Papilloma Virus and Syphilis can cause death:
- HIV – AIDS, organ failure, cancers
- Genital Herpes – death of infected newborn from overwhelming sepsis
- Hepatitis B and C – Liver failure, Liver cancer
- Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) – cervical, penis, anus, mouth and throat cancers
- Syphilis – brain and heart damage
To complicate matters more, some STIs can also be transmitted by non-sexual routes, making them easier to spread. HIV, Syphilis, Zika, Hep B & C, HIV and Genital Herpes also spread:
- Mother to child
- Before and during childbirth
- From a breastfeeding woman to her baby
- Through the use of unsterilized IV needles
- Through blood transfusions and other infected body fluids
Who is at risk for STIs?
If you think only promiscuous people and prostitutes get STIs, you’d be wrong. Any one having unprotected sex is at risk of STIs. Having multiple sexual partners also puts you at risk. If you think about that, any one who began sexual activity before age 21, has more than a couple of sexual partners by age 30, and has had unprotected sex at any point, already places his or herself at risk for STIs. If you’re having unprotected sex because you think you’re in a monogamous relationship but your partner is having sex with other people, you’re at risk.
If you’ve had an STI or currently have one, you’re at higher risk of getting other STIs. Men who have sex with other men are another group at risk for STIs.
STIs in women
STIs cause serious health problems in women including infertility, miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy and damage to the newborn from exposure in pregnancy to infections like syphilis, Zika, Hepatitis B & C, HIV, and Genital Herpes.
- If a mother contracts an STI, she can pass it on to her child before, during or after childbirth
- Untreated syphilis in pregnant women results in infant death up to 40% of the time
- Women have a higher risk than men of getting an STI during unprotected vaginal sex
In our next post we’ll look at barriers to treatment and what we can do to prevent STIs.