Half of Americans have lost their virginity by age 16, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which is a nationally representative ongoing study of the health and risk behaviors of teenagers. This information comes at the same time that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that about 19 million sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) were recorded in the United States during 2006, half occurring among people between the ages of 15 and 24. There were more than 1 million cases of chlamydia — a record number for a sexually transmitted disease.
Sexually transmitted diseases, also called Venereal diseases, are infectious diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, and protozoans that use the human body as a host for reproduction. If left untreated, STDs can cause serious health problems, infertility, and even death. The most common sexually transmitted diseases are: Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, Hepatitis, Genital Herpes, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), Syphilis, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and Trichomoniasis. If you suspect that you have a sexually transmitted disease, visit a doctor or clinic where you can be tested and treated. Postponing treatment by feeling embarrassed or ashamed will only allow the infection to spread and become worse.
Chlamydia is caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. About three quarters of women and about half of men may have no symptoms after infection. Symptoms usually appear within 1 to 3 weeks after exposure, typically as a burning sensation when urinating or as an abnormal discharge from the vagina or penis.
In women, an untreated infection can spread into the uterus or fallopian tubes and cause pelvic inflammatory disease which can cause permanent damage to the fallopian tubes, uterus, and surrounding tissues. The damage may eventually result in chronic pelvic pain, infertility, and pregnancy outside the uterus. Complications among men are rare, but sometimes the infection spreads to the epididymis, the tubes that carry sperm from the testes, causing pain and fever.
Chlamydia is treated with a single dose of azithromycin or a week of doxycycline administered twice daily. Persons with chlamydia should abstain from sexual intercourse for 7 days after starting antibiotic treatment to prevent spreading the infection to partners, and the partners should also be appropriately treated to prevent re-infection.
Gonorrhea is caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae, a bacterium that can grow in the urethra of men and women, and in the reproductive tract of women, including the cervix, uterus, and fallopian tubes. Gonorrhea, also called "the clap", is a very common infectious disease. The CDC estimates that more than 700,000 persons in the U.S. get new gonorrheal infections each year. Gonorrhea is spread by intimate contact with the infected organs, and the bacteria may also infect the mouth, throat, and eyes.
The symptoms of gonorrhea appear two to five days after infection, but they can take as long as 30 days to appear. In men, the symptoms include a burning sensation when urinating, or a white, yellow, or green discharge from the penis. In addition, the testicles may get painful or swollen. Women infected with gonorrhea often show no symptoms and sometimes the symptoms can be so non-specific that the disease can be mistaken for a bladder or vaginal infection. The symptoms eventually progress to a painful or burning sensation when urinating, increased vaginal discharge, or vaginal bleeding between periods. Untreated gonorrhea can cause serious and permanent health problems that can lead to infertility and life-threatening infections of the blood or joints.
Gonorrhea has been developing resistance to antibiotics since the 1960s, and some strains are now resistant to penicillin, tetracylcines and fluoroquinolones like Cipro. These resistant strains can only be treated with cephalosporins but at much higher doses than previously. Epidemiologists recommend retesting patients after treatment for gonorrhea to make sure that the infection is gone.
Trichomoniasis is caused by the protozoan parasite Trichomonas vaginalis. The parasite is transmitted by sexual contact with an infected person. The CDC estimates that 7.4 million new cases of trichomoniasis occur each year in the United States. Men with trichomoniasis usually do not have symptoms, except for a slight irritation inside the penis after urination or ejaculation. The symptoms in women usually appear within 5 to 28 days after infection and include irritation and itching of the genital area, and a frothy, yellow-green vaginal discharge with a strong odor. The inflammation caused by trichomoniasis increases a woman's susceptibility to HIV infection if she is exposed to the virus.
Trichomoniasis can usually be cured with a single oral dose of the prescription drug metronidazole. Sexual partners should be treated at the same time to eliminate the parasite, otherwise an infected man who has not had symptoms or whose symptoms have stopped can re-infect a female.
Syphilis is caused by the spiral-shaped bacterium Treponema pallidum. Syphilis is transmitted through direct contact with a syphilis sore which may occur mainly on the genitals, but can also occur on the lips and in the mouth. Pregnant women with the disease can pass it to the baby they are carrying. In order to reduce sexually transmitted diseases, many states have laws requiring the bride and groom to take a Wasserman test for syphilis before a marriage license is issued.
Syphilis was almost always fatal before the discovery of penicillin, but today, it is relatively easy to cure with antibiotics in persons who have been infected less than one year. Untreated, the disease proceeds in three stages:
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
The Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can lead to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). AIDS weakens the immune system and decreases the ability of the body to defend itself against infections from common bacteria. AIDS was first recognized in 1981 and is now one of the major worldwide causes of death from infectious diseases. Most deaths from AIDS are caused by opportunistic infections that would normally not be life-threatening in persons with a healthy immune system. There were 2.9 million deaths from AIDS in 2006, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that in 2006 there were 39.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS. More than 25 million people have died of AIDS since 1981.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus is found in blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk of infected individuals. A person is usually infected by coming in contact with body fluids from an infected person through sexual contact or sharing contaminated needles. Children may be infected by their mother at birth, or through breast milk. Persons have also become infected through transfusions and contaminated medical equipment, although stricter screening of donors and testing of donated blood have reduced this risk.
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
The Human Papillomavirus or HPV is a family of viruses that includes more than 100 different strains or types. Some types of HPV cause warts in the hands and face, but other strains of HPV are spread primarily through sexual contact and infect the genital area of men and women. Most people who become infected with HPV may not have any symptoms and the infection will clear by itself. Some strains of HPV may cause mild Pap test abnormalities or genital warts, whereas the "high-risk" types of HPV may cause abnormal Pap tests and can lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, or penis.
The CDC estimates that at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women acquire genital HPV infection at some point in their lives, and by age 50, at least 80 percent of women will have acquired genital HPV infection. Since most people who are infected have no signs or symptoms, they can unknowingly transmit the virus to a sex partner. Most women are diagnosed with HPV on the basis of abnormal Pap tests, but there are no tests for men.
HPV cannot be cured, but there is a vaccine (Gardasil) that protects against four HPV types which cause 70% of cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the vaccine for use in girls and women between 9 and 26 years of age.
Any person who is sexually active and has symptoms such as discharge or burning during urination or an unusual sore or rash in the genital area should consult a health care provider immediately. A person who has been treated for any STD should notify all recent sex partners so they can also receive medical treatment, and they should all avoid sex until they have completed their treatment.
Information about Sexually Transmitted Diseases and
referrals to STD Clinics can be obtained in the U.S. by calling: