Q&A: Common Sexually Transmissible Infections And Their Symptoms

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QUESTION: How common are Sexually Transmissible Infections and which are most common? Are there symptoms I should look for?

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Many sexually active adolescents and adults have, or have had, a sexually transmissible infection (STI). Two of the most common STIs are chlamydia and the human papillomavirus, which we often just call HPV.

Most Common STIs

Chlamydia is very common among 15-24 year olds. In fact, it is the most common bacterial STI in the United States. It can be spread through vaginal, oral or anal sex.

Then there’s the human papillomavirus – or HPV – which about 60-80% of adults are thought to have been exposed to. HPV is the virus that can cause cervical changes or genital warts, though most women and men’s bodies seem not to experience serious HPV-related problems.

There is a new HPV vaccine for women, Gardasil, which appears to be successful in protecting women against the effects of certain strains of HPV. The vaccine is associated with a reduced rate of certain cervical problems and diagnoses of genital warts.

HPV can also be spread through vaginal, oral or anal sex, and it may put women and men at greater risk for genital cancers, anal cancers and mouth cancers. But just because you have HPV does not mean that you will get cancer. Most people get HPV, but these cancers are still relatively rare.

Symptoms To Watch For

In terms of symptoms you should watch out for, pretty much any genital itching, burning, discomfort, discharge, sores, bumps or lesions should be discussed with your healthcare provider – even if you feel embarrassed! It is really important to take care of your own sexual health and that of your partner.

Many people don’t notice genital symptoms or else they pass off their symptoms as something else. For example, sometimes women think that their genital itching is caused by a yeast infection or men or women may think they have razor burn when really they may have herpes.

The bottom line is don’t assume that your symptoms are meaningless. If you notice changes in the way that your genitals feel or look, check it out with your healthcare provider.

Some STI’s Have No Symptoms

It’s also important to know that some STIs, such as Chlamydia, rarely have symptoms. But that doesn’t mean that STIs aren’t serious – if left untreated, chlamydia and gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (among women) and fertility problems for both sexes.

If you are sexually active, make sure you get tested regularly; check in with your healthcare provider to learn about the STI tests that are right for you.

Dr. Debby Herbenick (M.P.H., Ph.D.)

is a sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, Associate Director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University and author of several books including Sex Made Easy and Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction.
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