Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections that are passed from one person to another through sexual contact. Contact refers to the transfer from person to person of bodily fluids such as vaginal secretions, blood, and semen (including preejaculate, the few drops of semen that are released before ejaculation). The transfer of fluids takes place during vaginal intercourse, but it also takes place during oral and anal sex. Sometimes STDs can be transmitted by kissing or by close body contact. Some types of STDs also may be transmitted through needles shared by intravenous drug users. However, STDs are never acquired from toilet seats, towels, doorknobs, or other inanimate objects.
After colds and the flu, STDs are the most common infectious diseases in the United States, with more than 15 million new cases each year, 3 million of them among teenagers. By age 21, nearly one in five Americans requires treatment for a disease acquired through sexual contact.
The rapid spread of STDs is sometimes referred to as a "silent" epidemic because many of the diseases often have no noticeable symptoms in the early stages. But some of the potential consequences of STDs are serious: infertility, heart disease, liver and brain damage, blindness, cancer, and even death. Babies whose mothers are infected with STDs may have birth defects or developmental problems.
Researchers have identified about 50 STDs, including bacterial infections, which are curable, and viral infections, which are not. Among the 20 or so most common STDs, most are easily diagnosed by physicians using simple urine and blood tests, and many are easily treated with drugs that also help keep these diseases from spreading. But many STDs are never diagnosed, either because a person has no symptoms or because he or she is embarrassed to seek medical help.
If you have any reason to believe that you have been exposed to an STD, consult your physician without delay. Many STDs are highly contagious, and if you have sexual contact with someone who has an STD, you have a high risk of becoming infected. While having multiple sexual partners increases your risk of contracting an STD, even a person in a monogamous relationship can be at risk, since one partner might be harboring an infection acquired years earlier.
Another reason to seek medical help if you suspect you may have an STD is that it is possible to have more than one STD at a time. STDs weaken the body's immune system, making a person with one STD at greater risk of developing another.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Note that the term is "safer" sex rather than "safe" sex because abstinence is the only guarantee against STDs. To help prevent the transmission of an STD, follow these precautions every time you have sex:
• Use a latex condom (see page 197) each and every time you have sex, including anal and oral sex. Never reuse a condom.
• Don't have sex if you or your partner have any symptoms of an STD.
• Use a spermicide containing nonoxynol-9, which may provide additional anti-STD protection.
• Use only water-based lubricants during sex. Lubricants containing oil, such as petroleum jelly, can damage latex, making holes in a condom.
• Do not use a condom after its expiration date or if it has been damaged in any way.
• Note that STDs can be transmitted during sex using sexual aids or body parts other than the penis, such as fingers.
• Avoid binge drinking, which lowers inhibitions and may lead to unsafe sex.
• If you have any doubts about your or a partner's health, get tested.
Keep in mind that birth control measures (see page 195) such as the pill, diaphragms, and IUDs (intrauterine devices) do not provide protection against STDs. Although contraceptive foams or jellies kill some infectious microorganisms along with sperm, they are meant to be used with condoms and not as substitutes.
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