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Sexually Transmitted Infections: What You Need to Know

Jul 29, 2022
Sexually Transmitted Infections

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that are spread from person to person through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or other skin to skin contact. They can be caused by bacteria, viruses, and parasites. These can cause long-term health problems if not adequately treated.  The most common STIs in the United States are chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomonas, genital herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), syphilis, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

STI and STD are sometimes used interchangeably, but this is not accurate. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are long-term diseases which are caused by STIs. The term STD can be stigmatizing and misleading, so it is no longer used to describe infections which do not result in disease.

How Common Are STIs?

Prevalence of STIs is especially high among adolescents and young adults. There were 26 million new STIs in 2018, including almost half in ages 15-24 years. Despite initial declines in STI rates in the early months of the pandemic, rates have continued to climb steadily since then. 

Who is at Risk for STIs?

Young people are at high risk of infection, especially those who start becoming sexually active at earlier ages, have multiple sexual partners, live in detention facilities, do not use condoms, have difficulty accessing health care services, and use illegal drugs or substances. Any sexual contact with a person who has an STI can cause spread of the infection. Some infections, like herpes and HPV, can be spread through skin-to-skin contact.

Do STIs Cause Symptoms?

Sometimes. Common symptoms include discharge from the vagina or penis, pain during sex, abnormal bleeding, pain with urination, itching, bumps or blisters in genital areas, abdominal or pelvic pain, and many others. It is also common to have STIs and not have any symptoms, so it is important for you and your partners to be tested regularly to prevent passing it to others.

Are STIs Preventable?

Yes. Most STIs are 100% preventable. The following are some methods for prevention:

  • Avoiding sexual contact (abstinence). Say “no” if someone is making you uncomfortable or pressuring you to engage in any activity you do not want a part of.
  • Make sure partners are tested for STIs before becoming sexually active in new relationships.
  • Make sure any partners with positive STI testing are fully treated before resuming sexual activity.
  • Use barrier birth control, such as condoms and dental dams, to prevent spread of STIs.
  • Get vaccinated. HPV vaccination is recommended in all adolescents at ages 11-12, sometimes as early as age 9. This also protects against genital warts as well as cancer of the cervix, vulva, anus, penis, mouth, and throat. Hepatitis B vaccination is usually started at birth and completed in infancy. This is covered by most insurance programs.
  • Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is medicine that helps prevent HIV transmission in people with partners who are HIV positive. This is covered by most insurance programs.

How Often Should Someone be Tested for STIs?

Testing can often be done from a swab or urine sample, though some infections require a blood sample.  Routine screening is recommended for anyone who is sexually active. Yearly screening for gonorrhea and chlamydia is recommended for all sexually active women and people with a cervix under age 25 years. Testing should also be repeated 3 months after completing treatment. Specific testing guidelines for other groups and infections can be found on the CDC website.

How are STIs Treated?

Most STIs are curable with medication, usually involving pills by mouth or injections. It is very important to complete the entire course of treatment and make sure that all partners are treated. Some infections, such as herpes, cannot be cured completely and may require periodic treatment for outbreaks. Other infections, such as HIV, may require lifelong treatment.

What Are the Next Steps if Someone May Have Been Exposed to an STI or Wants to Get Tested?

STI testing can be performed at pediatric and adolescent gynecology and adolescent medicine clinics at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, as well as most primary care offices. Testing is also available at the Ohio Department of Health (call 1-800-332-2437), local health departments, Columbus Public Health, Planned Parenthood, and many other local free STI test clinics.

Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology
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Featured Expert

Yueyang Fei
Frances Fei, MD
Obstetrics and Gynecology

Dr. Fei is a member of the Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology physician team at Nationwide Children's Hospital.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.