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What Are STDs?

Each year, between 13 and 15 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are diagnosed in the United States. About a quarter of these cases are in teens ages 15 to 19 - that means one out of every eight adolescents contracts an STD. Unfortunately, many teens are unaware of the dangers posed by STDs or how to prevent or identify them. As a parent, you can help your teen stay safe by getting the facts about STDs . . . and discussing them with your teen.

What Are Sexually Transmitted Diseases?
STDs are infections people contract through sex or intimate skin-to-skin contact with someone who's infected. Some STDs are caused by bacteria and can be cured with antibiotics, and others are caused by viruses. Viral STDs can never be cured - the symptoms, such as sores or warts, can be treated, but the virus remains in the person's body and can cause those symptoms to flare up again at any time.

Some common STDs include:

  • Chlamydia is one of the most common bacterial STDs and affects about 3 million people a year in the United States. The highest rates of infection are among girls ages 15 to 19. Chlamydia infections usually cause abnormal discharge from the genitals and burning while urinating, but in some cases, no symptoms may be present. In women, untreated chlamydia sometimes progresses to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can cause infertility.
  • Trichomoniasis is a parasitic infection of the genitals that can produce a foul-smelling vaginal discharge and genital pain in women. Up to 5 million cases are reported yearly in the United States.
  • Syphilis is an infection that can spread from the genitals throughout the body. One of the earliest signs of syphilis is a sore (chancre) on the genitals or mouth. This is often followed by fever, a sore throat, headaches, or joint pain.
  • Pubic lice is an infestation of small parasites that causes redness and itching around the genitals.
  • Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection that can produce a greenish or yellowish discharge from the genitals, a burning sensation when urinating, fever, and abnormal vaginal bleeding and pelvic pain in women. In the United States, gonorrhea is most common among girls ages 15 to 19. Gonorrhea can become a systemic (spread throughout the body) infection, causing fever, skin lesions, and joint infection (arthritis).
  • Genital herpes (herpes simplex virus or HSV) is a viral infection that causes outbreaks of painful sores or blisters on the genitals, buttocks, thighs, or mouth. There are actually two types of herpes. In HSV-1, the sores usually start on the mouth but can spread to the genitals. HSV-2 is usually the cause of genital infections.
  • Genital warts (human papilloma virus or HPV) are like warts elsewhere on the body - they're caused by a virus. There are numerous strains of HPV, all of which can cause itchy bumps in or around the genitals or anus. It's believed that some forms of HPV put women at greater risk for cervical cancer.
  • Hepatitis B is a viral infection that primarily affects the liver. Hepatitis B symptoms include severe fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, vomiting, abdominal tenderness, and jaundice (yellow skin).
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Symptoms can take years to develop and include frequent infections, fever, night sweats, swollen glands, and fatigue. Eventually, AIDS is fatal.

How Are STDs Transmitted?
As the name indicates, STDs are usually spread through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex. The viruses or bacteria that cause STDs travel from person to person in semen, vaginal fluids, or blood. Some STDs enter the body through tiny cuts or tears in the mouth, anus, or genitals. Others flourish in the mucous membranes of the genitals or the delicate skin around the rectum and genitals. Diseases that are spread through blood like HIV and hepatitis B may also be transmitted via needles shared by intravenous-drug users.

Contrary to what some teens think, you do not have to have sexual intercourse to become infected with an STD. Someone can contract herpes or genital warts simply through skin-to-skin contact with an infected area or sore. And babies can get STDs from their mothers, either while in the uterus (syphilis and HIV can be transmitted through the placenta and infect the fetus) or during birth (gonorrhea, chlamydia, genital herpes, and hepatitis B can be passed from mother to child during delivery).

How Can STDs Be Prevented?
The only sure way to remain STD-free is to not have sex or intimate physical contact with anyone. Teens who are sexually active, however, can minimize the danger by avoiding high-risk behaviors like unprotected sex, intravenous drug use, and multiple sexual partners.

Any teen who is having sex should always use a latex condom (check the expiration date on the package), preferably accompanied by a spermicidal foam, cream, or jelly that contains nonoxynol-9. While nonxynol-9 has been shown to reduce the risk of contracting gonorrhea and chlamydia, it is important to note that nonoxynol-9 does not protect against AIDS. Waiting to become sexually active also reduces adolescents' risk of contracting an STD. The older teens are when they first have sex, the less likely they are to choose high-risk partners (people who have had unprotected sex or lots of sexual experience themselves) or have many partners overall. A mutually monogamous relationship and regular medical checkups, even when there are no signs of infection, are also crucial.

Females need to be especially vigilant about preventing STDs because many diseases can cause permanent damage to their babies, including infertility. Because sex during menstruation may increase the chances of transmitting or contracting HIV, it may be safer for women to wait until their periods are over to have sex. And douching should be avoided because it kills natural bacteria in the vagina that help protect against diseases.

Does My Child or Teen Have an STD?
There are no concrete signs of infection that you can look for in your child or teen. Most STD symptoms - such as genital sores, unusual discharge, or pain - will be apparent only to the person with the disease. In fact, many times STDs do not produce any visible symptoms at all. However, if you bathe your child and you notice sores or discharge or if your child is frequently scratching or holding her genitals, call your child's doctor.

If you pay attention to your teen's emotional signals, you might pick up on something that's bothering her. Worrying about an STD could make a teen unusually anxious or withdrawn, so be approachable in case she wants to talk.

Getting Help
If you suspect a problem or fear your child might be engaging in high-risk behaviors with unprotected sex or multiple sexual partners, you need to talk to her. Don't be critical or judgmental, but offer to help and always be supportive. Because neither you nor your teen is qualified to diagnose an STD, make sure she sees a doctor. A doctor can offer advice and treatment options if there is a problem.

Sometimes, STDs in teens and, particularly young children, can be a sign of sexual abuse. If you think your child has suffered this sort of trauma, seek medical help right away. Your child's doctor can put you in touch with social services to help you and your child deal with this difficult issue.

A doctor can be your best ally in educating your child or teen about STDs.

Date reviewed: March 2001