What every patient needs to know about sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

There are dozens of infections that can be transmitted through sexual contact. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that every day,1 million new sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are acquired worldwide. Here’s what every patient needs to know about sexually transmitted infections.

1) Eight STIs are responsible for the majority of infections

While there are 30 pathogens (bacteria, viruses, and parasites) that can be transmitted through sexual contact, eight pathogens are responsible for the majority of infections. Four of the pathogens are viral: Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Hepatitis B, and HIV. The other four pathogens are gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, and trichomoniasis.

2) The majority of STIs have mild (or no) symptoms

While some STIs cause noticeable symptoms, including body aches, fevers, discharge, and rashes, the overwhelming majority of STIs cause subtle symptoms or, in many cases, no symptoms at all. Many STIs continue to be transmitted because people are asymptomatic, and unknowingly transmit an STI to their sexual partner(s).

3) STIs can be dangerous -- or even deadly

We take STIs seriously because left untreated, many infections can be dangerous or, in some cases, deadly. If not detected or properly treated, STIs like syphilis, hepatitis B and C, HIV, and HPV can cause significant complications for patients. For pregnant women, untreated STIs can have harmful effects on the fetus as well.

4) It’s important to follow STI screening guidelines

Because most STIs are asymptomatic, it’s important to follow screening guidelines to detect any STIs that you may not even know you have.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends the following guidelines:

  • HIV testing for all adults ages 13-64.
  • Gonorrhea/Chlamydia testing every year for women under age 25, and women over 25 who have multiple sexual partners, a new sexual partner, or a partner with a known STI.
  • All pregnant women should be screened for STIs at the beginning of their pregnancy.
  • All sexually active gay and bisexual men should have STI screening at least once a year. Men with multiple sexual partners should have STI testing more frequently (every 3-6 months).
  • Sexually active women need regular PAP smears to screen for strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer.
  • Sexually active patients who receive anal intercourse also need regular screening for HPV.

5) Many STIs are treatable or curable

Of the eight most common STIs, four of them are curable: syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis. While the other four viral STIs are not curable, they are highly treatable, especially when they’re detected and treated early in the course of the infection.