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What are STDs and STIs?

What’s the difference between STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and STIs (sexually transmitted infections)? They are really the same thing. So why do some doctors use the word “infections” instead of “diseases”? Because the word “diseases” can make people think of having an obvious problem — but many STDs often have no signs or symptoms.

It can be hard to think about illness when you’re feeling attracted to someone. But STDs are serious stuff, and you owe it to yourself to know the facts.

STDs spread very easily, and young people have been hit hard by them. In fact, 1 out of 4 teenage girls has an STD.

Untreated STDs can cause some 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 STDs and how to keep safe.

Common STDs (STIs)

Symptoms of STDs (also called STIs or sexually transmitted infections) include itching, sores on the outside of your vagina, pain when you urinate, and an abnormal vaginal discharge (like a smelly fluid). But you also can have no symptoms, which is why it’s important to get tested if you’re having sex. Read more about symptoms of common STDs like herpes and chlamydia as well as STD tests and treatments.

What are STDs (STIs)? arrow. top

Sexually transmitted diseases or STDs (also called sexually transmitted infections or STIs) are caused by many different bacteria and viruses — and even tiny insects. You can get an STD by having sexual contact with someone who already has one. That means you can get an STD through sexual intercourse, or by putting your mouth, hands, or genitals on the genitals or on the sores of someone who is infected.

Keep in mind that women who have sex with women also are at risk for some STDs.

Can STDs be cured for good? arrow. top

Some STDs can be treated and cured and will go away completely. Even if you get treated, though, you can get the STD again if you continue to have sex — especially if you have unprotected sex.

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 STDs can't be cured, but you can get help with the symptoms. A few STDs can put your life in danger if they are not treated.

A shot against HPV

Have you heard about the HPV vaccine? It helps guard against human papillomavirus, which can cause genital warts and is the number one cause of cervical cancer.

How can I keep from getting STDs? arrow. top

The surest way to avoid getting an STD 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 STD. 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 STDs (and treated if necessary)
  • The two of you have sex only with each other
  • You always use a latex condom (and use it correctly)

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

There is no vaccine to prevent most STDs. But there are vaccines that can help prevent two STDs:

  • The hepatitis B vaccine can help protect against this dangerous STD, which can damage your liver. Most people get the hepatitis B vaccine as babies, but it’s a good idea to ask whether you’ve already gotten yours.
  • The HPV vaccine guards against some forms of human papillomavirus (say HYOO-muhn PAP-uh-LOH-muh-VEYE-ruhs). HPV can cause genital warts and cervical cancer.

How do you know if you have an STD? arrow. top

The only way to know if you have an STD is to be tested. You may have symptoms from an STD. 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 have symptoms that could be coming from an STD, 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, or has 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 STD tests you may need.

Do condoms protect against STDs? arrow. top

Latex condoms can lower your chances of getting HIV and some other STDs a lot. They don’t totally remove the risk, though. And they work better at preventing some STDs than others.

Remember that you have to use condoms right and every time. Learn more about condoms.

Who can get an STD? arrow. top

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

  • Anyone who has sexual contact — including oral sex, anal sex, and contact between genital areas — can get an STD.
  • STDs affect women and men of all ages and racial and ethnic backgrounds.
  • Teenage girls and young women get STDs more easily than older women do.
  • Young women who have sex with women are still at risk for STDs.
  • Becoming sexually active at an earlier age and having more partners increase the chances of getting an STD.
  • If you have sex with someone who has an STD you can catch it even if that person has no symptoms.

How can I get tested for STDs? arrow. top

Get tested

If you have ever had sex, you should get tested for STDs. Find a place to get tested for STDs .

Sometimes people are too scared or embarrassed to ask for STD information or testing. But keep in mind that many STDs 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 to test from:

  • Fluid or tissue from your genital, vaginal, or anal areas
  • Your blood
  • Your urine (pee)

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 STD and what to do to take care of your health. Sometimes, your doctor may want to treat you even before you get your test results. If so, you should still follow up to get the results and any other care you need.

Can I ask the doctor personal questions about sex and STDs? arrow. top

Doctors and nurses are there to talk to you about anything you need to protect your health!

If you are worried about your doctor telling your parents or guardians you are having sex, ask about his or her privacy policy before you begin. It’s possible your doctor may encourage you to talk to your parents. But in most states, doctors can’t share information about your reproductive health (especially about STDs) with anyone else without your permission. They can share the information without your permission only in special situations, such as if they think you have been sexually abused.

If you’re having sex, it’s very important to see your doctor regularly. You also might suggest that your partner see 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 STD or think I may have an STD? arrow. top

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

  • Try to talk to your parents/guardians. If you don’t feel like you can do this, 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 people who can take care of your health. If you are worried about anyone knowing, keep in mind that you can get confidential care at a family planning clinic. You can find a family planning clinic.
  • Be sure to tell your sexual partner if you think you have an STD. 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 STD and not have any symptoms.
  • If you have an STD, follow your doctor’s instructions carefully.
  • Avoid all sexual activity while you are being treated for an STD.
  • Some STDs like HPV (human papillomavirus) and HIV cannot be cured and can be passed to someone else, even if you don’t have symptoms. Talk with your doctor about ways to help protect your partner.
  • For STDs 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, so you may need to take a different drug to treat the STD.

What is PID? arrow. top

PID stands for pelvic inflammatory disease. It is a serious infection in your reproductive system that you can get from having some STDs. PID can lead to problems like ongoing pain in your pelvic area and not being able to have a baby when you are ready.

Teen girls (and young women) who have sex are most at risk for PID. This is partly because having a cervix that is still developing increases the chances of getting STDs that can lead to PID. And the more sex partners you have, the greater your chances of getting PID.

If you want to avoid getting STDs, your best bet is not to have sex. Latex condoms can reduce the chance of getting STDs that can lead to PID, but you have to use condoms the right way and every time.

If you are having sex, make sure to see your doctor and get tested for STDs. Treating STDs early can help prevent PID.

 

Content last reviewed April 15, 2014
Page last updated June 13, 2014

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

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