Q&A: The symptoms and risks of common sexually transmitted infectionsWritten by Focus on the Family
What's inside this article
As a parent, it’s important to know the symptoms and risks associated with a Sexually Transmitted Infection. Armed with some basic knowledge, you’ll be better equipped to help your son or daughter make wise choices in their relationships and, if necessary, get them immediate medical assistance. Although this article is addressed to a teen audience, it’s helpful reading for parents too.
Question: I’m afraid I may have a Sexually Transmitted Infection, but I don’t know for sure and I’m scared to talk to anyone about it. What are the symptoms associated with the major STIs? What should I do if I think I have one?
Fear, embarrassment and shame notwithstanding, you need to see your doctor right away if you have reason to believe that you may have contracted a Sexually Transmitted Infection. STIs can have serious consequences if not treated properly. What follows is a list of the most common Sexually Transmitted Infections and the symptoms that usually accompany them. It’s important to add that this data is provided only as a very general introduction to the subject – we don’t recommend self-diagnosis on the basis of this information.
Your guide to common STIs
Chlamydia. This infection is now the most common bacterial STI in the United States. More than 900,000 cases are reported every year, but experts estimate the actual number is more than three times that many. In men chlamydia can cause a discharge from the penis that tends to be more watery and less profuse than with gonorrhea. Pain with the passage of urine is also less severe. In women chlamydia may produce vague pelvic discomfort or pain with urination. Half of men and three out of four women experience no symptoms whatsoever. Whether or not symptoms are present, the disease can infect and damage a woman’s reproductive organs and create a significant risk of infertility later in life. Assuming it’s detected, a chlamydia infection normally responds to antibiotics.
Gonorrhea is another bacterial infection that is estimated to affect well over 600,000 Americans each year. Symptoms in males tend to be dramatic: a thick discharge from the penis accompanied by significant pain during the passage of urine. Many infected women have no symptoms, while others experience problems ranging in severity from mild discharges to abscesses in the pelvis requiring surgical treatment. In some cases extensive scarring of a woman’s tubes may occur, and depending on the extent of the damage, infertility may result. Once uniformly responsive to penicillin, gonorrhea must now be treated with other antibiotics.
Syphilis. Caused by a spiral-shaped organism known as a spirochete, syphilis is usually curable with penicillin, but resistant strains are now emerging. The initial sign of infection is a single painless ulcer, or chancre, which appears in the genital area (or wherever the initial point of contact was made). The chancre heals in two to six weeks without treatment and may even go unnoticed by the infected individual. A secondary phase occurs in six weeks to six months, producing a mild non-specific rash or more serious changes in various parts of the body. If untreated, a third stage may develop years later, with life-threatening heart disease, central nervous system disturbances and even insanity. Syphilis can be detected by a blood test. If the initial screen is positive, additional tests will be necessary to confirm the diagnosis and determine the proper course of treatment.
Herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV type 1 causes cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth or nose, though it can also cause genital infections through oral-genital contact. HSV type 2 is most commonly spread by genital sexual contact. The first outbreak is usually the worst, with an irritating, sometimes painful cluster of blisters that gradually crust and fade over ten to fourteen days. Men usually see an eruption on the penis, although they may not realize its significance because it resolves without treatment. Women are frequently unaware of the infection, but some suffer extreme discomfort in the genital area. The virus is commonly transmitted through the skin or mucous membranes even when no blisters are present. This undoubtedly contributes to its high prevalence: about one in five sexually active single people acquire this virus every year in the United States. Once it enters a person’s body, HSV has the capacity for re-occurrence. Recurrent outbreaks may take place over months or years. Antiviral medications such as acyclovir (Zovirax), valacyclovir (Valtrex) and famciclovir (Famvir) can limit the severity of herpes outbreaks. HSV is rarely life-threatening for adults, but for an infant infected during vaginal delivery it may produce serious long-term consequences or even death.
Human papillomavirus. Many who are infected with HPV never have any problem with it, and in seventy to ninety per cent of women, HPV infections clear up within 12 to 24 months of detection. However, some types of the virus can cause soft, wart-like growths in the genital area, most of which respond to topical chemical treatment. But other varieties are associated with cellular abnormalities that can lead to cancer of the cervix and have also been implicated in cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus and penis.
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The virus is transmitted through semen, vaginal secretions, blood and breast milk. Most HIV infections are transmitted during sexual contact, through contaminated needles, or by transfer from mother to baby during pregnancy. Careful screening of donated blood has now reduced the likelihood of infection from transfusions to less than 1 in 100,000. After causing an initial flu-like illness, HIV multiplies quietly within the immune system for years. The infected individual may feel perfectly well during this period but will be capable of transmitting the disease to others. Eventually the virus destroys the competence of the immune system, resulting in full-blown AIDS. Without adequate defenses, the body becomes vulnerable to a variety of devastating infections and some forms of cancer. At highest risk for this disease are people who have many sexual partners (especially male homosexuals) and those who are intravenous drug users. But HIV infections are not limited to those with high-risk lifestyles.
Hepatitis B. This is a viral infection of the liver transmitted through the same mechanisms as HIV. The majority of cases in adults resolve completely following a flu-like illness that includes fever, nausea and jaundice. However, between two and six per cent develop a chronic infection that can lead to cirrhosis or even cancer of the liver. Hepatitis B is one of two STIs – the other is HPV – for which a reliable vaccine has been developed. Current recommendations call for immunizing all infants, children and adolescents against this virus.
Get help right away
As stated above, if you have any reason to suppose that you may have contracted one of these diseases, you should seek immediate medical treatment. If you need help mustering the courage to make an appointment with your physician, please don’t hesitate to call Focus on the Family Canada’s counselling department for moral support. You can reach our counsellors Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time at 1.800.661.9800. They’ll be pleased to come alongside you in any way they can.
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