Frequently Asked Questions about STDs

I have some symptoms…do you think I have an STD?

Unfortunately, it is difficult to diagnose sexually transmitted diseases based on symptoms alone. Many STDs do not show any symptoms. If symptoms are present, they may overlap with symptoms of other STDs or other infections unrelated to sexual activity. The only way to determine if unusual symptoms are from a sexually transmitted disease is to consult with a health care provider. The CDC National STD Hotline can help locate free or low cost clinics around the United States and can be reached at 1-800-227-8922 or you can call the Vermont STD Hotline at 1-800-244-7639.

How do women know if they have chlamydia?

Women rarely show any symptoms of chlamydia, which is why testing is so important. Pain or burning during urination may be accompanied by a discharge from the vagina. Irregular bleeding and pain with intercourse may also be signs of a chlamydial infection. If a woman is experiencing any of these symptoms, she needs to be examined by a health care provider. Testing can be done even if symptoms are not showing. Antibiotics can cure chlamydia. If a woman is diagnosed, her partner should be treated at the same time so that the infection is not passed back to her after her treatment is completed.

If chlamydia is left untreated in women, pelvic inflammatory disease or PID can be a complication. The infection moves up into the reproductive tract and causes inflammation and abdominal pain. If the infection is not treated in a timely manner, scar tissue may form in the fallopian tubes, blocking the tubes and causing the woman to become sterile – unable to have children. Since women often do not show symptoms and every woman is different, there are no good estimates as to how long a woman can be infected with chlamydia without complications occurring.

I’m still a virgin but I’ve gone down on my partner before. Could I get a disease that way?

STDs can be transmitted through oral, anal, or vaginal sex. Even if a person has never had any penetration of the vagina or anus, she or he could still be at risk. Using latex condoms for any mouth to penis contact is recommended. For any mouth to vagina or anus contact, a latex dental dam (a flat piece of latex that can be placed over the vagina or anus), or regular household plastic wrap, can be used to provide a moisture barrier between the vagina or anus and the partner’s mouth.

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STDs are curable, right?

Some STDs are curable and some are not. This is easiest to understand if you divide STDs into two categories: Viral and Bacterial:

STDs caused by viruses are not curable. Herpes, HPV/genital warts, and HIV are examples. They can all be treated to control symptoms and to help a person live a healthier life. Another viral STD, Hepatitis B, cannot be cured but can be prevented if a person gets vaccinated before he or she is exposed to the virus. Unfortunately, there are no vaccines available for other viral STDs now.
STDs caused by bacteria are curable, usually with antibiotics. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are examples of bacterial infections. If a person is diagnosed with a bacterial STD, he or she should inform partners so that they can be tested and treated as well. Take all medication as prescribed, and follow all other instructions given by the health care provider to be sure that the infection is gone. The CDC National STD Hotline can help locate free or low cost clinics around the United States and can be reached at 1-800-227-8922 or you can call the Vermont STD Hotline at 1-800-244-7639.

How is gonorrhea transmitted?

Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection that can be transmitted through oral, anal, or vaginal sex with an infected partner. If the vagina, cervix, anus, penis or mouth comes in contact with infected secretions or fluids, then transmission is possible. Latex condoms are recommended to help reduce the likelihood of transmission and are most effective if they are used from the very beginning of any contact until the very end.

What are the symptoms of syphilis?

Syphilis, like most STDs, may not show symptoms right away. If symptoms do show, they may go unnoticed or be ignored. Syphilis symptoms follow three basic stages. The primary symptom, called a chancre, is a raised, rubbery sore that is usually painless. Even without medication, this sore will usually go away on its own.

Secondary syphilis can cause patchy rashes primarily on the hands or soles of the feet. These symptoms can also go away without medication. Finally, third stage syphilis or tertiary syphilis can cause permanent damage, including vision loss, neurologic dysfunction, heart disease, and death. A blood test can diagnose syphilis even if there are no symptoms present. Syphilis can be cured at any stage; however, if damage has already occurred, it cannot be reversed.

Is hepatitis B deadly?

Hepatitis B (HBV) is a virus that causes inflammation of the liver. Chronic (long-lasting) hepatitis B can cause liver cell damage, which can lead to cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) and cancer. It is estimated that 5,000 people die each year in the United States due to the complications of cirrhosis and liver cancer as a resultu of HBV.

The good news is that there is a vaccine to prevent people from getting hepatitis B. Check with your health care provider. Currently, this is the only STD that is completely preventable by vaccination.

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How does herpes affect pregnancy?

Most pregnant women who have herpes have healthy pregnancies and successful vaginal deliveries. If you have had previous outbreaks of herpes, you should tell your health care provider so he or she can do a thorough visual exam at the onset of labor. If an outbreak is present at the time of delivery, a caesarean section may be performed to avoid exposing the infant during delivery. Although complications are rare, the greatest risk is if a woman has her first outbreak while she is pregnant.

So, what’s the connection between HIV and other STDs?

When someone is diagnosed with one STD, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend testing for other STDs as well. The risk behavior that allowed transmission of one STD may also put a person at risk for others. STDs may also make a person more vulnerable to contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, since some STDs like herpes and syphilis may create sores that cause breaks in the skin. These breaks in the skin can let infected body fluids enter the body, increasing the risk of transmission. Healthy skin may act as a protective barrier to these fluids.

What is the connection between HPV and genital warts?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus. It’s the virus that causes warts of all kinds, such as those commonly found on the hand. There are over 80 different strains of HPV, and each strain infects a specific type of skin. Certain strains of HPV infect skin in the genital area only. These strains may cause warts in the genital area--or, genital warts.

Many people who have HPV don’t know it because the virus often causes no symptoms. Warts are the common symptom caused by HPV infection. Genital warts can be flesh colored, white, or grey and vary in size; they can be flat or raised off the skin in a cauliflower-like formation. Just like warts elsewhere on the body, genital warts are usually benign, which means they aren’t likely to cause health complications.

Treatment of HPV includes different measures to remove visual warts from the surface of the skin. Some treatments include a mild acid applied directly to the skin, or cryotherapy (freezing with liquid nitrogen) which is performed by a health care provider. Some patients may choose not to have the growths removed. Decisions about treatment should be made with a health care provider.

Even when visual warts are removed, transmission from the skin may still be possible. Warts may also re-grow. Some strains of HPV primarily infect the cervix and usually do not cause warts. These same strains have been strongly associated with cervical dysplasia and cervical cancer. Regular pap smears play an important role in detecting cell changes related to HPV and in providing early treatment. HPV rarely causes cervical cancer, but it is an added risk factor for women. Treatment of the cervix includes either mild acid applications or cryotherapy. The goal of treatment is to remove the abnormal cells.

Frequent pap smears are important in monitoring the cell growth after treatment. HPV is transmitted during sexual contact when infected genital skin rubs against uninfected genital skin. HPV is not passed through body fluids, and getting HPV in the mouth through oral sex is unlikely. Preventing transmission requires barrier protection. Latex male condoms or female condoms will protect the skin that they fully cover. It is important to know that genital warts can infect skin outside the areas that are covered by a condom. Abstaining from genital skin to genital skin contact is the only way to ensure protection from the virus.

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How do you prevent STDs?

Not having sex, or having sex with only a long-term monogamous partner who is not infected with any STDs is the only way to completely prevent contracting a sexually transmitted infection. It is important to note that passing a STD does not always require penetration of the mouth, vagina, or anus by the penis or tongue. Simple genital to genital skin rubbing is sometimes enough to allow viruses or bacteria to be passed.

For additional information, contact

Vermont Department of Health
108 Cherry Street
P.O. Box 70 Drawer HAST-41
Burlington , VT 05402
Phone: 802-863-7245
FAX:  802-763-7314

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