April is just a few days away and because it is STD Awareness month, it is a good icebreaker for writing about a subject that can be difficult to discuss for some people. Sexually transmitted diseases are more common than you think. There are millions of new infections in the United States every year.
You can reduce your risk of getting or transmitting one by being in a long-term mutually exclusive sexual relationship with a partner who has been tested and has negative STD test results and by using latex condoms the right way every time you have sex. The only way to guarantee you won’t get or transmit an STD is to not have vaginal, anal or oral sex.
Curable STDs are bacterial infections, and manageable STDs are caused by viruses. It is important to know that once you are cured of a bacterial STD, you can catch it again if you get exposed again.
Most people who become infected with an STD have no or such mild symptoms that they don’t know they are infected. If you are having sex that is not within a long-term exclusive relationship, you should get tested routinely so you can be treated. It is important to get treatment to avoid long-term and sometimes permanent physical effects, including sterility, as well as to avoid passing the infection on to your partner or partners. If you are a woman, you also want to prevent passing an infection to your baby if you are pregnant or you get pregnant.
Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are the most common bacterial STDs and can be cured in most cases. As with any bacteria, antibiotic resistant strains can make treatment more challenging. Gonorrhea is a notable example of a bacterial STD that has become more difficult to cure because of resistance.
Chlamydia can cause abnormal vaginal discharge and a burning sensation when urinating in women and a clear penile discharge along with a burning sensation when urinating and sometimes pain and swelling in the testicles in men. A rectal infection can cause rectal pain, discharge and bleeding.
Gonorrhea can cause the same symptoms as chlamydia with the addition of bleeding between periods for women. The penile discharge is usually cloudy. A rectal infection can cause discharge, anal itching, soreness, bleeding and painful bowel movements.
Syphilis has four stages and each one has different symptoms. In the primary stage, you can have a single or multiple sores that are usually firm, round and painless. They are easily missed. Secondary stage syphilis can cause skin rashes and sores in your mouth, vagina or anus. It can also cause fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches and fatigue. The rash can be rough, red or reddish brown spots and is most commonly found on the palms of the hands and bottoms of the feet.
Untreated syphilis can move to the latent stage when there are no symptoms and can last for years even though you are still infected.
The tertiary stage of syphilis is the most dangerous stage. It can damage your heart, blood vessels, brain and nerves, which can lead to death. Tertiary syphilis, when it occurs, usually happens 10 to 30 years after initial infection. After being pretty rare for some decades, there has been an increase in syphilis in the past few years.
As with any medical condition, prevention has the best outcomes, so take all the precautions you can to prevent passing on or getting an STD. However, if you do get one, do not be embarrassed or hesitate to see your healthcare provider for treatment. Watch for my next column covering parasitic and viral STDs.
Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center. His column appears biweekly in The Spokesman-Review.
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