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Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

Maria Robinson, MDSarah Gupta, MD
Written by Maria Robinson, MD | Reviewed by Sarah Gupta, MD
Updated on September 27, 2021

Definition

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs, also called sexually transmitted diseases or STDs) are infections passed between people during sexual contact — especially with direct contact of the genitals, anus, mouth, or skin. 

There are more than 20 different types of STIs. In the United States, the most common are:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)

  • Genital herpes (HSV-1 and HSV-2)

  • Trichomoniasis

  • Chlamydia

  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

  • Gonorrhea

  • Syphilis

  • Viral hepatitis

STIs are very common in people who are sexually active. There are about 26 million new cases in the U.S. every year, and about half of those are in people aged 15 to 24. STIs are easy to diagnose, and most can be cured. And there are good treatments to manage the symptoms of the ones that can’t be cured.

Knowing about STIs, including preventing, diagnosing, and treating them, is an important part of staying healthy. Untreated STIs can lead to permanent health problems, so if you are sexually active, make time to get screened regularly for STIs.

Causes

Sexually transmitted infections are caused by different types of bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Anyone who is sexually active can get an STI — even if your partner doesn’t have any symptoms or you only have sex once.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some groups of people are more affected by STIs: 

  • Teenagers and young adults

  • Men who have sex with men

  • Pregnant women and babies

  • Certain racial and ethnic groups

You may also be more likely to get an STI if you:

  • Are not vaccinated (for HPV and hepatitis B)

  • Have anal, vaginal, or oral sex without a condom or other barrier

  • Have multiple sex partners

  • Have anonymous sex partners

  • Have sex while you’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which can result in greater risk-taking

Another possible risk factor is an infection called bacterial vaginosis, which happens when a certain type of bacteria in the vagina outnumbers the “good” bacteria. Bacterial vaginosis isn’t an STI, but having it increases your risk of getting an STI. It can be treated with antibiotics.

Symptoms

Sexually transmitted infections can cause uncomfortable symptoms — or sometimes have no symptoms at all. Even without symptoms, STIs can still be contagious.

You might have an STI if you’ve noticed any of these common symptoms:

  • Unusual discharge from the genitals

  • Sores or warts in the genital area

  • Painful or frequent urination

  • Itching or redness around the genital area

  • Blisters or sores around the mouth

  • Abnormal genital odor

  • Stomach or pelvic pain

  • Fever

Not treating an STI can cause serious long-term health problems and could even lead to death. It’s important to get screened regularly if you’re sexually active, so you can protect yourself — and your partner(s).

Diagnosis

There are many easy, confidential, and convenient ways to get tested for STIs. Options include:

Different types of tests can detect an STI. Depending on your symptoms and situation, your provider may suggest one (or all) of the following tests:

  • Urine test: Gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomonas infections can be diagnosed from a small urine sample collected in a cup.

  • Genital swab: Some STIs can be diagnosed from cells collected from inside the genitals. This is done by inserting a thin swab into the urethra or the vagina.

  • Blood tests: Blood tests can diagnose certain STIs — like syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis B. A blood test can also check whether you’ve had a herpes infection in the past.

  • Samples from sores or ulcers: A fluid sample from an open sore in your genital or mouth area can be used to diagnose some STIs, like herpes.

  • Testing for HPV: HPV can be diagnosed during regular cervical screening or by home testing.

Medications

If you test positive for an STI, you may feel scared or embarrassed. But remember, many STIs are easily cured — and all of them can be treated. 

STIs that can be cured with antibiotics include:

  • Chlamydia 

  • Gonorrhea 

  • Syphilis 

  • Trichomoniasis

 

Some STIs cannot be cured but can be well-managed with medications and regular visits to your healthcare provider. These include:

  • Herpes simplex. Though there is no cure, antiviral pills can help prevent and manage symptoms. Medication can also help outbreaks heal faster and decrease your chances of infecting someone else.

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). Though there is no cure for HPV, most infections will go away on their own in 1 to 2 years without causing any health problems. If they don’t go away, certain types of HPV can cause genital warts and cervical cancer

  • HIV and hepatitis B. These are more complicated viral infections and need referrals to a specialist for complete evaluation and a longer course of treatment. Antiviral medications can slow down these conditions and protect your body.

Treatments

Treating sexual partners if you have an STI

If you have an STI, it’s important to tell your sexual partner or partners. If possible, they should also be evaluated, tested, and treated. This should include partners within the last 60 days or your last partner if your last sexual contact was more than 60 days ago.

If you’ve been diagnosed with chlamydia or gonorrhea, expedited partner therapy can be used in some situations. This is when your provider will give you a prescription or medication to give to your partner without actually examining them.


You should wait to have sex until you have finished all the medications and no longer have symptoms, and your partner has also been treated and has no symptoms. If you’ve been treated for chlamydia with one dose of antibiotic, you should still wait 7 days before having sex.

Prevention

The best way to prevent an STI is to not have sex — oral, vaginal, or anal. But if you’re sexually active, practicing safer sex can definitely lower your risk of getting an STI. Some tips include:

  • Get vaccinated against hepatitis B and HPV.

  • Use a condom or other barrier every time you have anal, vaginal, or oral sex. 

  • Have fewer partners, or commit to just one sexual partner (monogamy). 

  • Talk with your partner about your sexual histories, and get tested before having sex.

  • Avoid substance use before and during sex.

  • Use pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) if you’re at risk for HIV.

  • Enjoy lower-risk activities, like dry humping (grinding), masturbation, and kissing

It’s also a great idea to get screened regularly for STIs — even if you don’t have any symptoms or are in a long-term relationship. All sexually active adults should get checked for STIs at least once in their lifetime. 

You may need to be screened more often if you:

  • Are pregnant

  • Have multiple sexual partners

  • Are a man who has sex with men

  • Have unprotected sex 

  • Are under the age of 25

  • Have a sexual partner with an STI

  • Have had an STI before

Common concerns

Can I get tested for STIs from home?

Yes. At-home STI tests work and may be a good option for some people. STI test kits can be ordered online or picked up at some pharmacies. The kit includes everything you need, including directions, equipment, and a container to mail everything to the lab.

The lab will analyze your sample, and you’ll usually get your results online within a few days. If you have a positive test, some of these services will connect you to healthcare providers (through phone or video) to talk to you and help you get treatment. 

Can I get an STI from someone without symptoms?

Yes, many STIs don’t cause any symptoms, but they can still result in health problems and be passed to other people. This is why screening for STIs is so important for your health — it can catch infections you don’t even know you have so that they can be treated early.

Are condoms the best way to prevent an STI?

Other than not being sexually active, condoms are one of the best ways to lower the risk of getting (or giving) an STI, especially ones that are transmitted by fluids (like HIV, gonorrhea, or chlamydia). They may not be as effective at preventing STIs that are spread by skin-to-skin contact, like herpes and HPV.

Is testing confidential?

Whether you get tested by your primary provider, at a confidential clinic (like Planned Parenthood and FastMed), or are using an at-home STI kit, your information and results are always confidential. By law, some STI results have to be reported to the state and the CDC. This is to improve public health and to make sure there are good screening and treatment programs. Your information is still private. If you are under 26 years old and on your parent’s health insurance, talk to the insurance company to see what information is reported if you get tested. 

How do I notify a partner?

Notifying a partner or ex-partner can be uncomfortable and hard to do. But it’s also really important because it helps keep them healthy, too. Having an honest and straightforward conversation without blaming anyone can be helpful. There are resources that give tips on how to start that conversation. There are also government-sponsored health programs like Partner Notification Services that can help by notifying your partners. And just remember, STIs are very common, and you are not alone. The important thing is to get tested and treated.

References

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. (2020). How to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Incidence, prevalence, and cost of sexually transmitted infections in the United States. 

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GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.
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