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What are sexually transmitted infections?

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are very contagious infections that spread through sexual contact. These bacteria, viruses or parasites can be transmitted (passed) through vaginal, oral or anal sex. You can develop the infections on or in your penis, vagina, mouth or anus.

With many STIs, you may not have noticeable symptoms. If you have unprotected sexual contact, you could have - and pass on - an STI without knowing it. Sometimes you’ll have itching, burning or discharge in your genital area, genital sores or pain during sex. You may also have symptoms of STIs in your anus, mouth or throat.

If you’re sexually active, talk to your health care provider about screening recommendations for STIs. It’s very important to understand how STIs spread, how to prevent them and how to spot the warning signs early so they can be treated. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also have detailed screening recommendations based on different types of STIs, sexual orientations and health considerations.

People used to call STIs sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). But health providers now use the term STI, since it’s more accurate. That’s because an infection happens when the virus, bacteria or parasite enters your body. It’s not considered a disease until you have symptoms.

Preventing STIs

Anyone who has sex or participates in sexual activity is at risk for STIs. You can only prevent STIs by not having vaginal, oral or anal sex. You are at higher risk if you have unprotected sex, multiple sex partners, a history of STIs or are forced to participate in sexual acts. Teenagers and young adults, especially people ages 15 to 24, are at typically at higher risk than older people. However, according to the CDC STIs are on the rise in adults over 65.

If you engage in sexual activity, you can reduce the risk for STIs by:

  • Using a condom correctly for any type of sex
  • Using a dental dam for oral sex if your partner has a vagina
  • Getting tested regularly
  • Getting vaccinated against HPV and hepatitis B
  • Avoiding alcohol or drug use before sex, so you’ll make better decisions
  • Limiting your number of sex partners, especially anonymous partners

You can also help prevent STIs by communicating openly with new partners before you have sex about your STI status, when they were last tested and if they use protection with sexual partners.

Diagnosing and treating STIs

If you feel you may have been exposed to an STI, you’re at high risk or you have any symptoms, it’s very important to seek medical care. Some people feel embarrassed or think that there’s a stigma associated with these infections. The truth is: they are very common and counseling, testing and treatment are confidential. It’s important to be honest with your health care provider about your history, concerns and symptoms.

Diagnosing and treating STIs depends on exactly what type of infection you have. Generally, doctors can test your urine, blood, saliva, discharge, bodily fluids, take a swab of your throat and/or genital area or take a tissue sample.

For some STIs, there are at-home self-testing options. For others, your provider can test you and give you the results quickly. In some instances, your sample will need to be sent to a lab for analysis. Because of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), most health insurance plans must pay for STI testing.

Most STIs can be treated. Depending on the type of STI you have, your provider may prescribe antibiotics or antiviral medications. They may also give you medication for your partner to take. For STIs that can’t be cured, such as herpes (HSV), human papillomavirus (HPV) or HIV, medication can usually help control symptoms and keep the infection from getting worse.

It’s very important to be tested for STIs, even if you don’t have any symptoms. Untreated STIs can cause problems such as infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and higher cancer risk. Women are at higher risk of complications than men. There’s also a risk that babies can catch STIs during pregnancy or childbirth.

If you’re diagnosed with an STI, you must notify any sex partners from the last three to 12 months (this timeframe depends on the type of infection). That way, you can stop the infection from spreading. In some states and areas, you’re legally required to notify your partner(s) if you have certain types of STIs. You may be able to have your provider or public health department notify your partner(s) or use a confidential service such as Tell Your Partner.

What are the common types of STIs?

There are more than 20 types of STIs. Some of the most common include:

  • Chlamydia
  • Gonorrhea
  • Syphilis
  • Herpes
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Hepatitis
  • Mycoplasma genitalium

Learn more about the signs, testing and treatment for these common STIs