Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infectious diseases that are spread through sexual contact. STDs are among the most common infectious diseases in the world today. There are more than 20 types, affecting more than 13 million men and women in the United States each year. Some of the most common STDs include chlamydia infection, genital herpes, genital warts, gonorrhea, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), and syphilis.
Signs and Symptoms
Many times, someone with an STD has no symptoms. That's especially common in women. However, STDs may have the following signs and symptoms:
- Discharge from the penis or vagina
- Pus-containing blisters
- Genital sores including ulcers, blisters, rashes, and warts
- Abdominal pain
- Rectal infection and inflammation of the rectum
- Muscle pain
- Painful urination
- Painful sex
- Bleeding between menstrual cycles
- Repeated urinary tract infections
- Swollen lymph glands in the groin
What Causes It?
STDs are caused by viruses, bacteria, and parasites spread most often (but not always) through sexual contact. Some STDs can be passed from a mother to her baby during delivery and through breast-feeding while infected. Others may be passed by sharing infected needles. Some of the most common STDs, and what causes them, include:
- AIDS: human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
- Chlamydia infection: Chlamydia trachomatis
- Genital herpes: herpes simplex virus (HSV)
- Genital warts: human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Gonorrhea: Neisseria gonorrhoeae
- Syphilis: Treponema pallidum
Who's Most At Risk?
These conditions or characteristics put you at risk for developing STDs:
- Sexually active adults ages 18 - 28. Teens are at highest risk for acquiring an STD for the first time.
- Having a sexual partner with an STD. In many cases, the person may not have symptoms.
- Having many sexual partners, or a partner who has many sexual partners
- Having sex without a condom or other protection
- Having one STD increases the chance of getting another
- Living under stress from poverty, poor nutrition, or lack of health care
- Having anal intercourse increases risk for HIV, gonorrhea, and syphilis
- Having a weakened immune system
- Using IV drugs and sharing needles
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Your health care provider will do an examination and check for physical signs of disease. Blood tests and tests of discharge from a genital sore can help find what is causing the infection so you can get the right treatment.
You can reduce your risk of getting an STD by:
- Delaying first sexual experience
- Having a mutually monogamous sexual relationship with an uninfected partner
- Always using a male or female condom for every act of oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse
- Using clean needles if injecting IV drugs
- Preventing and controlling other STDs
- Having regular checkups for STDs even if you have no symptoms, especially if you are having sex with a new partner or with multiple partners
- Learning the common symptoms of STDs and seeking medical help immediately if you develop any symptoms
- Taking medications to suppress the virus if you have HPV or HSV
- If you are a girl or boy age 9 - 26, getting vaccinated for HPV
Anyone diagnosed with an STD should be treated, avoid sexual activity while being treated, notify all recent sexual partners, finish any medications prescribed, and take a follow-up test.
STDs are generally treated with antibiotic and antiviral medicines. If you have HSV or HPV, your doctor may recommend suppressive medications that you take even when you don't have an outbreak. They reduce the number and length of outbreaks, as well as the likelihood that you'll pass the infection to someone else. See also: HIV and AIDS.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Some CAM therapies can help treat STDs -- along with conventional medicines, to prevent infection, to boost the immune system, or to reduce certain complications, such as arthritis from gonorrhea.
Some CAM therapies can help treat specific STDs, including human papilloma virus and herpes viral infections. Check with your health care provider about which supplements might work for you, and about how herbs and supplements may interact with prescription and non-prescription drugs.
CAM therapies don't offer a cure or a single treatment for any STD. You still need to see your doctor and take conventional medications. Even during treatment, STDs remain highly contagious. You need to take precautions so that you don't transmit the STD to your sexual partner (see "Prevention" section).
Nutrition and Supplements
These supplements may help when you have an STD:
- B-complex vitamins, to boost your immune system, particularly if you have HPV.
- Probiotic supplement (containing Lactobacillus acidophilus), 5 - 10 billion CFUs (colony forming units) a day. Taking antibiotics to treat an STD can upset the balance of bacteria in your intestines and cause diarrhea. Probiotics, or “friendly” bacteria, can help restore the balance. Refrigerate your probiotic supplements for best results. People with autoimmune disease such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, or people who take drugs to suppress the immune system, should ask their doctor before taking probiotics.
- Propolis, 3% ointment, applied to the skin, may help genital lesions caused by herpes simplex virus type 2 to heal faster. Propolis is a resin made by bees. One small study of people with genital herpes compared an ointment made from propolis to Zovirax ointment. People using propolis saw the lesions heal faster than those using topical Zovirax. More studies are needed to say for sure whether propolis works.
- Zinc, applied in a cream to the skin, may reduce the severity and duration of genital herpes lesions.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of your health care provider.
- Green tea (Camellia sinensis), proprietary extract, applied to the skin. A proprietary extract of green tea, called Polyphenon E ointment, is approved by the FDA as a topical treatment for genital warts caused by HPV.
- Aloe (Aloe vera), 0.5% cream. Some early evidence suggests that aloe gel used topically may improve the symptoms of genital herpes in men. In two studies, men who used the aloe vera cream saw lesions heal faster than those who used a placebo cream.
- Eleutherococcus or Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus/Acanthopanax senticosus). One 6-month study of 93 people with genital herpes found that Siberian ginseng reduced the frequency, severity, and duration of outbreaks. Other studies have found no effect. Siberian ginseng interacts with many other medications, including those for diabetes. It may not be right for people with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, severe mental health issues, or hormone-sensitive cancers such as breast, uterine, ovarian, or prostate cancer. Take Siberian ginseng only under your doctor's supervision.
- Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) may help boost the immune system. High doses of reishi may increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you also take blood thinners such as warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), or aspirin. Reishi may also lower blood pressure. If you take drugs to treat high blood pressure, taking reishi could cause your blood pressure to be too low. Ask your doctor before taking reishi.
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) uses many herb combinations to strengthen and tone the immune system, and to fight viruses. Check with your health care provider for more information on TCM.
Homeopaths use various homeopathic remedies to treat STDs. However, no scientific studies have looked homeopathy for this purpose. An experienced homeopath would consider each individual case and may recommend treatments to address both the underlying constitution and the specific symptoms of the STD.
Many STDs can be treated effectively when they are diagnosed early. However, if you don't get treatment you can have many complications.
Some types of STDs often come back. Some can cause permanent damage to the reproductive organs and infertility. Having other STDs increases the risk for becoming infected with HIV. Some bacteria may become resistant to the antibiotics used to treat some STDs.
Depending on the type of STD you have, your health care provider may want to see you for follow-up visits to be sure the disease has not come back or to continue your treatment. If you are pregnant, an STD can cause serious complications for your unborn baby. Your health care provider will discuss treatment options with you.
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