Sex (Re)Ed: A Brief Refresher On STIs

Earlier today, Elizabeth wrote about a few non-normal ‘nether region symptoms that could be caused by something other than an STI, which was a good reminder that just because it itches, it doesn’t mean it’s automatically an infection of the intimate variety. But that doesn’t mean that when something fishy is going on downstairs, you should ignore it–because it could be something serious.

There are plenty of sexually-transmitted diseases and infections (STD and STI have nearly become interchangeable, though STI is more accurate overall) floating around in the world–some you can even get while using protection, and most of which you haven’t thought about since you initially flipped through the copy of Your Changing Body that you mother handed to you in embarrassment. It’s time to brush up on what these ailments are, what they look like, when to get help, and how you can protect yourself.


Name: Chlamydia

About: Treatable, often without symptoms, and fairly effectively prevented with a condom, chlamydia is pretty harmless. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be trying to protect yourself from it–particularly since it’s one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, and because, if left untreated, it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, with is serious.

Symptoms: The majority of women experience no symptoms when infected with chlamydia. But for those who do, they’re pretty uncomfortable, often similar to other ailments (like urinary tract infections), and can include abdominal pain, spotting, a low fever, an unusual discharge, burning during urination and sex, bleeding after intercourse, swelling of the genital region, and an urge to urinate often.

Treatment: Chlamydia is treated with antibiotics–which means that, just like with a UTI, you have to take all of the pills given to you. Skipping the last few pills leaves the infection open for re-occurrence, which is a totally unnecessary risk to take.


Name: Herpes

About: A common two-strain virus that can cause sores on either the mouth or genitals, herpes is incurable, and can take years to present itself. Herpes can be transmitted with or without symptoms (meaning you can catch it even when someone doesn’t have an outbreak), and can make you more susceptible to contracting HIV. Unfortunately, herpes can be spread through kissing, touching, and oral sex (as well as vaginal or anal sex), so trust and openness about previous sexual partners is paramount in protecting yourself.

Symptoms: The most noticable symptom of herpes is cold sores, which occur outside of the mouth or vagina. Sores in the mouth are likely canker sores, which are not the same thing. Herpes may also come with burning urination, swelling that may block the opening of the urethra, swollen glands, and flu-like symptoms.

Treatment: Despite the fact that herpes is incurable, there are medications available to lower your risk of transmitting the disease, so if you have it, you should see a doctor regularly. Sores must be kept dry and allowed to breathe, so while putting a bandage over your face may seem like the only way to live, if you’re having an outbreak on your face, it’s best to grin (or grimace) and bear it.


Name: Chancroid (SHANG-kroid)

About: If you’ve never heard of chancroid, don’t be ashamed–I hadn’t either, because it’s just not very common. A bacteria that is transmitted through sexual skin-to-skin contact, chancroid causes sores on the genitals about 4-10 days after initial contact.

Symptoms: Open, possibly pus-producing, painful sores around the genitals. These sores do not appear anywhere else, and do not usually come with any other flu-like symptoms.

Treatment: Unlike herpes, which is a virus, chancroid can easily be treated with antibiotics. But make sure your partner also gets treated, or else you’ll keep passing it back and forth.


Name: Genital Warts /HPV

About: Genital warts are caused by some strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV), and can, like all strains of HPV, be spread through skin-to-skin (and not necessarily sexual) contact. With over 100 strains of HPV, all of which can lead to various complications (like warts), it’s no surprise that so many women (and some smart men) are getting vaccinated against the disease.

Symptoms: Similar in appearance to regular warts, genital warts appear on the vagina and in the rectal region, and are lumpy and look a bit like cauliflower. High-risk HPV (which can lead to cervical cancer) is often without symptoms.

Treatment: Genital warts often disappear on their own, as the body fights the virus off. However, if you have genital warts, then you also have HPV, which is incurable. And while symptoms may come and go, you have the disease for life.


Name: Gonorrhea

About: Another symptomless disease, the big G is spread through sexual contact, even when no outward signs are present. Condoms and other barriers offer good protection against gonorrhea, and are important even during oral sex, as this disease can infect the through or mouth. Left untreated, gonorrhea can lead to pregnancy complications and pelvic inflammatory disease.

Symptoms: Though there are often no symptoms with gonorrhea (4 out of 5 women don’t know they have it), when symptoms do present, they are similar to those of chlamydia.

Treatment: Gonorrhea is treated with antibiotics, like chlamydia.


Name: Pubic Lice (Crabs)

About: Arguably one of the grosser ailments you can get through sexual contact, crabs are super-itchy lice that live in your pubic hair. They can be transmitted even though non-penetration sexual contact, as they can briefly live in bed sheets and underpants. Lice are common–millions pick them up each year–and can be prevented by not sleeping with anyone who’s got an itchy bush.

Symptoms: Just like with regular lice, symptoms include spotting the bugs and eggs (nits) themselves, intense itching, redness and small bumps, and a mild fever.

Treatment: Pubic lice is easily treated with over-the-counter lice treatments. Shaving your pubic hair, as well as other home remedies are not recommended, and, as lice can move from one area of hair to another, you may need to also treat the hair on your head, eyebrows, etc. Washing and sanitizing sheets and clothing may also be necessary.


Name: Syphilis

About: Far, far less common that it was back in the day, this progressive disease, which is caused by bacteria spread through sexual contact, gets much worse if left untreated–unfortunately, it also comes without symptoms, which is another reason that getting tested frequently is important.

Symptoms:  Syphilis is often divided into three stages. During the early stage, there are few symptoms, though sores may occur in the genital region, around the mouth, or on the breasts. In later stages, the bacterial can cause rashes, hair loss, swollen glands, and, eventually, nervous system failure, brain damage, and heart damage.

Treatment: Early in the infection (3-6 weeks, generally), this bacteria can be treated. However, after the infection has been present for several months, damage may be done that can’t be repaired, which is why early diagnosis is critical.


Any time something suspicious is happening below the belt, it’s best to seek help ASAP. Even if it’s not something serious, getting treated quickly can help keep diseases from developing further. Getting tested regularly is also a good way to ensure that nothing unknown is going to spring up when you least expect it–and can offer true peace of mind to you and your partner.

A big thanks to Planned Parenthood for the information.

Image: Thinkstock


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    • alan zou

      Shock!!!! My friend who is living with Herpes told me a report from CNN said that the world’s largest Herpes dating and support site SinglesHerpes. com which is powered by plenty of fish now has more than 1,100,000 members. Also, more than 80% of members on the site are good looking and sexy.

      The report also indicated that STD rates soar worldwide and CDC had granted CSU $1.9M for Herpes education to lower the rates of Herpes transmission.

    • Rhiannon

      “Public” lice? Really?