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Straight talk about sexually transmitted infections

Symptoms of STIs include itching, sores on the outside of your vagina, and pain when you urinate. But you also can have no symptoms at all, which is why it’s important to get tested if you’re having sex. Read more about the symptoms, tests, and treatments for common STIs.

It can be hard to think about illness when you’re feeling attracted to someone. But sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are serious stuff, and you owe it to yourself to know the facts. The truth is that STIs spread very easily, and young people have been hit hard by them. In fact, a whopping 1 out of 4 teenage girls has an STI. And untreated STIs can cause some pretty scary health problems. These include problems with your reproductive system, like not being able to have children when you want to. And they include pain, cancer, and permanent damage to your body. Read on to learn more about STIs and how to keep yourself safe.

What are sexually transmitted infections (STIs)? arrow top

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that are caused by many different types of bacteria and viruses (and even tiny insects). You can get an STI by having sexual contact with someone who already has one. That means you can get an STI through sexual intercourse, or by putting your mouth, hands, or genitals on the genitals or on the sores of someone who is infected. Women who have sex with women also are at risk for some STIs.

Can STIs be cured for good? arrow top

Some STIs can be treated and cured and will go away completely. Even if you get treated, though, you can get the STI again if you continue to have sex — especially if you have unprotected sex. Make sure to ask your doctor or nurse about treatment for your partner. Otherwise, you might just keep giving the infection back and forth to each other. Some STIs can't be cured, but you can get help with the symptoms. A few STIs can put your life in danger if they are not treated.

How can I keep from getting STIs? arrow top

Have you heard about the HPV vaccine? It can help guard against human papillomavirus, the number one cause of cervical cancer.

The surest way to avoid getting an STI is not to have sexual intercourse or other kinds of intimate sexual contact. Even waiting to have sex until you are older lowers your chances of getting an STI. It’s also a good idea to stay away from drugs and alcohol, which can lead to having unsafe sex.

If you do have sex, you’ll be safer if:

  • Both you and your partner get tested for STIs
  • The two of you have sex only with each other
  • You always use a condom

Lots of myths about STIs get passed around, too. Have you heard that you can prevent STIs by douching, urinating, or washing after sex? Well, unfortunately, none of these methods work.

Also unfortunately, there is no vaccine to prevent most STIs. The hepatitis B vaccine can help protect against this dangerous STI, which can damage your liver. Most kids get the hepatitis B vaccine before starting school, but it’s a good idea to ask whether you’ve already gotten yours. Your doctor may also suggest that you get the HPV vaccine, which guards against some forms of human papillomavirus. HPV can cause genital warts and cervical cancer.

If I get an STI, will I know it? arrow top

The only way to know if you have an STI is to be tested. You may have symptoms from an STI. But lots of infections have no symptoms, especially in the early stages. By the time symptoms do show up, the infection may already have done damage.

If you do have symptoms that could be coming from an STI, like stomach pain, see a doctor right away. Also see a doctor if fluid comes out of your vagina that is yellow, gray, or green with a strong smell. A clear or whitish fluid could be normal discharge, but if it’s new and you have been sexually active, ask your doctor about it.

If you are having sex — or have had sex even once — see your doctor to find out which STI tests you may need.

Do condoms protect against STIs? arrow top

Yes and no. Condoms provide good, but not perfect, protection against some STIs, especially gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV. But condoms aren’t as helpful in protecting against other STIs, like herpes, HPV (warts), and syphilis.

Who can get an STI? arrow top

Here are some key points about who can get an STI:

  • Anyone who has sexual contact — and not just sexual intercourse — can get an STI.
  • STIs affect women and men of all ages and racial and ethnic backgrounds.
  • Teenagers and young adults get STIs more easily than older people do.
  • Young women who have sex with women are still at risk for STIs.
  • Becoming sexually active at an earlier age and having more partners increase the chances of getting an STI.
  • If you have sex with someone who has an STI you can catch it even if that person has no symptoms.

How can I get tested for STIs? arrow top

If you need to find a place to get tested for STIs , you can.

Sometimes people are too scared or embarrassed to ask for information or testing. But keep in mind that many STIs are easy to treat — and dangerous if they’re not detected and treated.

When you visit your doctor, he or she probably will examine your skin, throat, and genital area for sores, growths, and rashes. He or she also may look inside your vagina and at your cervix.

Your doctor may take a sample of fluid or tissue from your genital, vaginal, or anal areas and send it to a lab to get tested for STIs. Blood or urine tests are also used to check for some STIs.

Of course, you may be nervous during these tests, but they usually are painless and quick. When the doctor gets the results, he or she will let you know if you have an STI and what to do next to take good care of your health. Sometimes, your doctor may want to treat you even before you get your test results, but you should still follow up to get the results and any other care you need.

Can I ask the doctor my personal questions about sex and STIs? arrow top

Yes! Don't be embarrassed — doctors and nurses are there to talk to you about these things. If you are worried about your doctor telling your parents or guardian you are having sex, ask about her/his confidentiality (privacy) policy before you begin. Your doctor may encourage you to talk to your parents. But in many states, doctors can't share information about your reproductive health with anyone else without your permission, unless they think you have been taken advantage of or sexually abused.

If you’re having sex, you also might suggest that your partner talks with a doctor too. That way your partner can get any necessary tests and helpful information to stay well too.

What should I do if I have an STI or think I may have an STI? arrow top

If you think you have an STI, follow these important steps:

  • Talk to your parents/guardian, or, if you don't feel like you can, talk to someone else you trust, like a nurse or a teacher.
  • Make an appointment right away to see a health care provider, such as a pediatrician, an adolescent medicine specialist, or a gynecologist. Read more about the people who can take care of your health.
  • Be sure to tell your sexual partner if you think you have an STI. Both of you should be tested and treated if necessary, or you can pass it back and forth. Remember that your partner can have the STI and not have any symptoms.
  • If you have an STI, follow your doctor's instructions carefully.
  • Avoid all sexual activity while you are being treated for an STI because you could still give it to your partner and your partner could give it back to you.
  • Some STIs like HPV (human papillomavirus) and HIV cannot be cured and can always be passed to someone else, even if you don't have symptoms. Talk with your doctor about ways to help protect your partner.
  • For STIs that can be cured, get a follow-up test to make sure that the infection is gone.
  • If you think you might be pregnant, be sure to tell your doctor. Some medicines aren't safe to take if you are pregnant and you may need to take a different drug to treat the STI.


Content last reviewed October 13, 2010
Page last updated October 31, 2013

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health.