Many people still believe that only irresponsible people get sexually transmitted infections (STIs, also known as sexually transmitted diseases or STDs). However, a 2008 study done by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that the problem continues to grow, and one in four teenage girls has an STI.
The most common STIs are human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, trichomoniasis and herpes. If left untreated, HPV and chlamydia can lead to serious health problems, including cervical cancer, infertility and pelvic inflammatory disease. Early awareness and reporting every infection to medical professionals are important steps in reducing the risk of getting or passing on an STI. If treated early, these infections are much less dangerous.
Women are particularly vulnerable to STIs: they are more severely affected than men are and can have more (and more serious) health problems as a result. Unfortunately, there are often no noticeable or only very subtle symptoms, and they can be easy to miss. HPV doesn’t usually cause symptoms at all, but here are some possible symptoms of the other common STIs:
- Bacterial vaginosis (BV): vaginal itching; pain when urinating; a discharge with an unpleasant smell
- Chlamydia: an abnormal discharge; a burning feeling when urinating; bleeding between periods
- Genital herpes: small red bumps, blisters or open sores; a vaginal discharge; fever; headache; muscle aches; pain when urinating; itching, burning or swollen glands in the genital area; pain in the legs, buttocks or genitals
- Gonorrhea: pain or a burning feeling when urinating; yellowish or bloody vaginal discharge; bleeding between periods; pain during sex; unusually heavy bleeding during periods
- Hepatitis B: a low fever; headache; muscle aches; tiredness; loss of appetite; upset stomach or vomiting; diarrhea; dark urine and pale bowel movements; stomach pain; yellowing of skin and eyeballs
- HIV/AIDS: fevers and night sweats; tiredness; fast weight loss; headache; enlarged lymph nodes; diarrhea, vomiting or upset stomach; mouth, genital or anal sores; dry cough; skin rash; short-term memory loss; vaginal infections; changes in the menstrual cycle
- Trichomoniasis: a discharge with a strong smell; pain when urinating and during sex; itching or irritation around the genitals
Condom use has increased significantly since the early 1980s, and latex condoms can reduce STIs in both men and women. They are highly effective in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV, and consistent and proper condom use will also reduce the risk of genital herpes, syphilis and genital warts.
With condoms, however, consistency is key. One unprotected sex act is just as dangerous as many. To be effective, condoms must be used from the start of sexual contact until after ejaculation and withdrawal.
Ideally, women should be in control of their sexual health and not count on a male partner to assume responsibility. The female condom can be found at most drugstores or through family planning clinics. This polyurethane sheath is inserted into the vagina up to eight hours before sex and acts as both a contraceptive and a protective barrier against STIs. It provides a viable option for all women, even those allergic to latex.
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