Sexually Transmitted Diseases—

Symptoms Overview:

Chlamydial Infections

These infections are now the most common of all STDs, with an estimated 4 million new cases occurring each year. In both men and women, chlamydial infection may cause an abnormal genital discharge and burning with urination. In women, untreated chlamydial infection may lead to PID, one of the most common causes of infertility in women and of ectopic pregnancy. However, many people with chlamydial infection have few or no symptoms of infection. Once diagnosed, chlamydial infections are treatable with an antibiotic drug.

Genital Herpes

Genital herpes affects an estimated 30 million Americans. Approximately 500,000 new cases of this incurable infection develop annually. Herpes infections are caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV). The major symptoms of herpes infection are painful blisters or open sores in the genital area. These may be preceded by a tingling or burning sensation in the legs, buttocks, or genital region. The herpes sores usually disappear within 2 to 3 weeks, but the virus remains in the body and the lesions may recur from time to time. Severe or frequently recurrent genital herpes is now treated with acyclovir, an antiviral drug available by prescription; it helps control the symptoms but does not eliminate the herpes virus from the body. Women who acquire genital herpes during pregnancy can transmit the virus to their babies. Untreated HSV infection in newborns can result in mental retardation and death.

Genital warts

Genital warts (also called venereal warts, or condylomata acuminata) are caused by a virus related to the virus that causes common skin warts. Genital warts usually first appear as small, hard, painless bumps in the vaginal area, on the penis, or around the anus; if untreated, they may grow and develop a fleshy, cauliflower-like appearance. Genital warts infect 500,000 Americans each year. Scientists believe that the virus responsible for genital warts also may cause several types of genital cancer. Genital warts are treated with a topical drug (applied to the skin), by freezing, or if they recur, with injections of a type of interferon. If the warts are very large, they can be removed by surgery.


Approximately 1-1/2 million cases of gonorrhea occur each year in this country. The most common symptoms of gonorrhea are a discharge from the vagina or penis and painful or difficult urination. The most common and serious complications occur in women, and as with chlamydial infections, these complications include PID, ectopic pregnancy, and infertility. Historically, penicillin has been used to treat gonorrhea, but several penicillin-resistant forms of the bacteria have recently appeared. Other antibiotics or combinations of drugs must be used to treat these resistant strains.


Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was first reported in the United States in 1981. It is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a virus that destroys the body's ability to fight off infection. An estimated 1 million people are currently infected in the U.S., including more than 2000 infants, most of whom contracted the disease from their mothers. People who have AIDS are very susceptible to many life-threatening diseases, called opportunistic infections, and to certain forms of cancer.

Transmission of the virus primarily occurs during sexual activity and by sharing of needles used to inject intravenous drugs.

The U.S. Public Health Service has set up a confidential toll-free hotline number on AIDS: 1-800-342-2437.


Syphilis has increased dramatically in recent years, with more than 130,000 cases reported in 1990. The first symptoms of syphilis may go undetected because they are very mild and disappear spontaneously. The initial symptom is a chancre, a painless open sore that usually appears on the penis or around or in the vagina. If untreated, syphilis may go on to more advanced stages, including a transient rash and, eventually, serious involvement of the heart and central nervous system. The full course of the disease can take years. Penicillin remains the drug most commonly used to treat syphilis.

Other Diseases

Other diseases that may be sexually transmitted include trichomoniasis, bacterial vaginosis, cytomegalovirus infections, hepatitis B, scabies, and pubic lice.

STDs in pregnant women are associated with a number of adverse outcomes, including spontaneous abortion, prematurity and infection in the newborn. Low birth weight and prematurity appear to be associated with most acute STDs, including chlamydial infection and trichomoniasis. Congenital or perinatal infection (infection that occurs either during or before birth) occurs in 30-70 percent of infants born to acutely infected mothers and may include pneumonia, potentially blinding eye infections, and permanent neurological damage.

What Can You Do to Prevent STDs?

The most effective way to prevent STDs is to not have sexual intercourse. If you decide to be sexually active, there are things that you can do to reduce your risk of developing an STD.

*Be direct and frank about asking a new sex partner whether he or she has an STD, has been exposed to one, or has any unexplained physical symptoms.

*Learn to recognize the physical signs of STDs and inspect a sex partner's body, especially the genital area, for sores, rashes, or discharges.

*Don't have sex if your partner has signs or symptoms of STDs. Urge him/her to get medical attention as soon as possible.

*Use a condom (rubber) during sexual intercourse and learn to use it correctly. Diaphragms may also reduce the risk of transmission of some STDs. Although there is some laboratory evidence that spermicides can kill STD organisms, scientists are still evaluating the usefulness of spermicides in preventing STDs. Some studies have found that frequent use of spermicides (more than three times a week) may cause vaginal inflammation.

Anyone who is sexually active with someone other than a long-term monogamous partner should: *Have regular checkups for STDs even in the absence of symptoms. These tests can be done during a routine visit to the doctor's office.

*Learn the common symptoms of STDs. Seek medical help immediately if any suspicious symptoms develop, even if they are mild.

Anyone diagnosed as having an STD should: 1.Notify all recent sex partners and urge them to get a checkup.

2.Follow the doctor's orders and complete the full course of medication prescribed. A follow-up test to ensure that the infection has been cured is often an important final step in treatment.

3.Avoid all sexual activity while being treated for an STD.

Sometimes people are too embarrassed or frightened to ask for help or information. Most STDs are readily treated, and the earlier a person seeks treatment and warns sex partners about the disease, the less likely that the disease will do irreparable physical damage, be spread to others or, in the case of a woman, be passed on to a newborn baby.

Private doctors, local health departments, and STD and family planning clinics have information about STDs. In addition, the American Social Health Association (ASHA) provides free information and keeps lists of clinics and private doctors who provide treatment for people with STDs. ASHA has a national toll-free telephone number, 1-800-227-8922. Callers can get information from the ASHA hotline without leaving their names.


STDs cause physical and emotional suffering to millions and are costly to individuals and to society as a whole.

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a part of the National Institutes of Health, has specific extensive research programs designed to improve methods of prevention and to find better ways to diagnose and treat these diseases. NIAID also supports several large university-based STD research centers.

Within the past few years, NIAID-supported research has resulted in new tests to diagnose some STDs faster and more accurately. New drug treatments for STDs are under investigation by NIAID researchers. This is especially important because some STDs are becoming resistant to the standard drugs. In addition, vaccines are being developed or tested for effectiveness in preventing several STDs, including AIDS, chlamydia, genital herpes and gonorrhea.

Research may someday result in detection methods, medications and vaccines that could make STDs less of a health risk. Modern antibiotics have done much to improve treatment.

It is up to each individual to learn more about STDs and then make choices about how to minimize the risk of acquiring these diseases and spreading them to others. Knowledge of STDs, as well as honesty and openness with sex partners and with one's doctor, can be very important in reducing the incidence and complications of sexually transmitted diseases.

This information is adapted from official reports of the National Institutes of Arthritis and Infectious Diseases.

St. Louis, Missouri

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This page managed by Banis& Associates. Last modified October 2006. Copyright, 2000-2006 Banis & Associates