What are sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)?

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infectious diseases transmitted through sexual contact. Fifty percent of new STDs happen in people in the age range of 15 to 24 years.

Protecting your adolescent from STDs

The best way to prevent your son or daughter from contracting an STD is to advise them to abstain from any type of sexual contact with another person. However, if they decide to become sexually active, or are currently sexually active, there are several precautionary measures to follow. These are recommended by experts to help reduce your adolescent's risk of developing a sexually transmitted disease. They include:

  • Have a mutually monogamous sexual relationship with an uninfected partner.

  • Use (consistently and correctly) a male latex or female polyurethane condom, even for oral sex.

  • Use sterile needles if injecting intravenous drugs.

  • Decrease susceptibility to HIV infections by preventing and controlling other STDs. Having another STD makes it easier to get infected with HIV.

  • Delay having sexual relationships as long as possible. The younger a person is when they begin to have sex for the first time, the more susceptible they become to developing an STD.

  • Have regular checkups for HIV and STDs.

  • Learn the symptoms of STDs and seek medical help as soon as possible if any symptoms develop.

  • Avoid having sexual intercourse during menstruation.

  • Avoid anal intercourse, or use a male latex condom and topical microbicides.

  • Avoid douching.

What should my adolescent do if diagnosed with an STD?

  • Begin treatment immediately, take the full course of medicines, and follow your healthcare provider's advice.

  • Notify all recent sexual partners and urge them to get medical checkups. If your son or daughter does not wish to do this personally, your local health department will provide assistance. 

  • Avoid sexual activity while under treatment for an STD. If your partner also needs treatment, wait until his or her treatment is completed as well.

  • Have a follow-up test to be sure the STD has been successfully treated.

What are some common types of STDs?

Numerous STDs have been identified.  According to the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the CDC, common types of STDs include:

  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). HIV, the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency symptoms (AIDS), destroys the body's ability to fight off infection. It is spread by unprotected sex with an infected person, as well as through contact with infected blood or contaminated needles. People with advanced HIV infection are very susceptible to many life-threatening diseases and to certain forms of cancer.

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common sexually transmitted disease that can cause genital warts called condylomas. These can happen on the inside or outside areas of the genitals and may spread to the surrounding skin or to a sexual partner. Because HPV infection does not always cause warts, the infection may go undetected.
    Women with an HPV infection have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. Regular Pap tests can detect HPV infection, as well as abnormal cervical cells. An HPV vaccine is available to help prevent cervical cancer and genital warts. It is recommended starting at age 11 but can be given as young as 9 years of age. Discuss this with your child's healthcare provider.
    Although there is treatment for genital warts (which sometimes go away on their own), the virus remains and warts can reappear. Certain types of HPV can also cause warts—called common warts—on other body parts such as the hands. However, these do not generally cause health problems.

  • Chlamydia. Chlamydial infections, the most common of all STDs, can affect both men and women. They may cause an abnormal genital discharge and burning with urination. In women, untreated chlamydial infection may lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). This is an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and other reproductive organs that causes symptoms such as lower belly pain. Chlamydial infections can be treated with antibiotic therapy. Unfortunately, many people with chlamydial infection have few or no symptoms. The most common and serious complications happen in women and include pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic (tubal) pregnancy, and infertility. Men may have urinary symptoms or have no symptoms while they have chlamydia.

  • Gonorrhea. Gonorrhea causes a discharge from the vagina or penis and painful or difficult urination. The most common and serious complications happen in women and include pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic (tubal) pregnancy, and infertility.
    Gonorrhea infections can be treated with antibiotic therapy.

  • Genital herpes. Genital herpes infections are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Symptoms may include painful blisters or open sores in the genital area. These may be preceded by a tingling or burning sensation in the area. The herpes sores usually disappear within a few weeks, but the virus remains in the body and the lesions may recur from time to time.
    There is no cure for HSV but there are antiviral agents to take that can shorten an outbreak and reduce symptoms.

  • Syphilis. The initial symptom of syphilis is a painless open sore that usually appears on the penis, in the vagina, or around either sexual organ. Untreated syphilis may go on to more advanced stages, including a transient rash and, eventually, serious involvement of the heart and central nervous system. Syphilis infections can be treated with antibiotic therapy.

  • Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID is a serious complication women can get from some STDs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. PID refers to an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and other reproductive organs. It can cause lower belly pain and, later on, infertility.

  • Other diseases that may be sexually transmitted include:

    • Bacterial vaginosis

    • Chancroid

    • Cytomegalovirus infections

    • Granuloma inguinale (donovanosis)

    • Lymphogranuloma venereum

    • Molluscum contagiosum

    • Pubic lice

    • Scabies

    • Trichomoniasis

    • Oral ulcers (oral sex can result in ulcers from gonorrhea or herpes)

Facts about STDs and adolescents

  1. STDs affect men and women of all backgrounds and economic levels. However, nearly half of all STD cases in the U.S. happen in people younger than age 25.
  2. STDs are on the rise, possibly due to more sexually active people who have multiple sex partners during their lives.
  3. Many STDs initially cause no symptoms. In addition, many STD symptoms may be confused with those of other diseases not transmitted through sexual contact—especially in women. Even symptomless STDs can be contagious and can later cause chronic or serious health problems.
  4. Women suffer more frequent and severe symptoms from STDs:
    • Some STDs can spread into the uterus (womb) and fallopian tubes and cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). This can lead to both infertility and ectopic (tubal) pregnancy.
    • Some strains of HPV infection in women may also be associated with cervical cancer. In both women and men, these strains may cause anal, head, and neck cancer.
    • STDs can be passed from a mother to her baby before or during birth. Some infections of the newborn may be successfully treated. Others may cause a baby to be permanently disabled or even die.
  5. Once diagnosed, many STDs can be successfully treated. Some STDs, such as herpes, cannot be completely cured and may happen again, but each recurrence can be controlled.