What Causes STDs in Men & Women?

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections which are transmitted from person to person through sexual contact. While this type of contact is typically vaginal, oral, or anal sex, sometimes the infections can spread through other forms of intimate physical contact. Some forms of STDs, such as HPV and herpes, are spread through skin-to-skin contact.

More than 20 types of STDs exist. Some of the most prevalent STDs include chlamydia, genital herpes, gonorrhea, HIV/AIDS, HPV, pubic lice, syphilis, and trichomoniasis.

The three primary causes of an STD or STI are summarized below:

  • Bacteria: this includes chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis
  • Viruses: HIV/AIDS, herpes simplex virus, human papillomavirus, hepatitis B virus, cytomegalovirus (CMV), and Zika
  • Parasites: trichomonas vaginalis and insects such as crab lice or scabies mites

An STI spreads through sexual activity such as sexual intercourse. Some types of STIs can also be spread through oral sex and other sexual activities. Ejaculation does not need to take place for an STI to be transmitted.

Sharing a contaminated needle, such as those used for drug injection, or using contaminated body piercing or tattooing equipment can also cause the transmission of some infections. This includes HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. There are also a few infections which can be transmitted through sexual contact, but may also be spread through nonsexual, close contact. While these infections, such as CMV, are not considered an STI, they can be transmitted through sexual contact.

No matter how the person is exposed to the infection, once they are infected with an STI, it can be spread to other people through oral, vaginal, or anal sex. This is true, even when the patient does not have any symptoms.

In most cases, the STD can affect men and women alike. However, in many cases, the health issues and complications associated with the infection can be more severe for women. For example, if a pregnant woman has an STD, it can cause serious complications for the baby, including stillbirth.

STDs do not always have symptoms or may only have mild symptoms. Meaning it is very possible to have an infection, but not realize it and transmit the infection to other people. Some of the most common symptoms associated with STDs include the following:

  • Abnormal vaginal odor
  • Anal itching, soreness, or bleeding
  • Abdominal pain
  • Blisters or sores in or around the mouth
  • Discharge from the penis or vagina
  • Fever
  • Itching and redness in the genital area
  • Painful or frequent urination
  • Sores or warts on the genital area

Patients who are sexually active should talk to their doctor about the risk for STDs and the possible need for testing. Because many STDs do not have symptoms, this is especially important.

The diagnosis for some STDs take place during a physical exam or through microscopic examination from a sore or fluid swab from the vagina, penis, or anus. Blood tests can also be used to diagnose some types of STDs.

STDs which are caused by bacteria or parasites can often be treated with the use of an antibiotic. There is unfortunately no cure for STDs caused by viruses. Medication can often be used to help control the symptoms and minimize the risk of spreading the infection.

While the proper usage of latex condoms helps to reduce the risk of catching or spreading STDs, they are not 100% effective. The most reliable way to avoid an infection is through abstinence. Vaccines are available which can prevent HPV and hepatitis B.

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