Any of the following activities put you in a category that is at a higher risk of having contracted an STD, also known as an STI. Many STDs like gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV oftentimes go symptomless. However, even symptomless STDs can still cause long-term, life-altering complications.
Risk Factors Of Contracting An STD
- Having unprotected sex. Vaginal or anal penetration by an infected partner who is not wearing a latex condom significantly increases the risk of getting an STI. Improper or inconsistent use of condoms can also increase your risk.
- Having oral sex. Oral sex is less risky, but may still transmit infection without a latex condom or dental dam. Dental dams—thin, square pieces of rubber made with latex or silicone—prevent skin-to-skin contact.
- Having sexual contact with multiple partners. The more people you have sexual contact with, the greater your overall exposure risks. This is true for concurrent partners as well as monogamous consecutive relationships.
- Having a history of STIs. Being infected with one STI makes it much easier for another STI to take hold. If you’re infected with herpes, syphilis, gonorrhea, or chlamydia and you have unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner, you’re more likely to contract HIV. Also, it’s possible to be reinfected by the same infected partner if he or she isn’t also treated.
- Anyone forced to have sexual intercourse or sexual activity. Dealing with rape or assault can be difficult, but it is important to be seen by a medical professional as soon as possible. You can be offered screening, treatment, and emotional support.
- Abusing alcohol or using recreational drugs. Substance abuse can inhibit your judgment, making you more willing to participate in risky behaviors.
- Injecting drugs. Needle sharing spreads many serious infections, including HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. If you acquire HIV by injecting drugs, you can transmit it sexually.
- Being an adolescent female. In adolescent girls, the immature cervix is made up of constantly changing cells. These unstable cells make the adolescent female cervix more vulnerable to certain sexually transmitted organisms.
- Men who request prescriptions for drugs to treat erectile dysfunction. Men who ask their doctors for prescriptions for certain drugs—such as sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), and vardenafil (Levitra)—have higher rates of STIs. Be sure you are up to date on safe sex practices if you ask your doctor for one of these medications.
Potential Complications To Untreated STDs
- Chlamydia. Nicknamed the “silent disease,” chlamydia often does its damage unnoticed. Many times, it produces virtually no symptoms in about half the men and three quarters of the women who get it, according to the CDC. But that can mean trouble, especially for women: infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, and dangerous ectopic pregnancies can result if the infection isn’t stopped with antibiotics. While men rarely experience complications, the infection can spread to the tube that shuttles sperm, leading to pain, fever, and a remote chance of sterility. Once a woman has been infected with chlamydia, she is up to five times more likely to contract HIV if exposed to the virus. To avoid serious problems, the CDC urges—at a minimum—annual screening tests for all sexually active women ages 25 and under, as well as tests for all pregnant women. A mother’s untreated chlamydia infections can invade a newborn’s eyes and respiratory tract, which is why it’s the leading cause of pink eye and pneumonia in infants, according to the CDC.
- Syphilis. Once thought to be nearly eradicated in the United States, syphilis has staged a comeback in the past decade. It is most common among men with same-sex partners, although women, too, can become infected. Syphilis typically unfolds in stages, the first of which is marked by a small, often painless sore that may heal on its own (it is through direct contact with syphilis sores that the bacterial infection is spread.) If untreated, a rash of red-brown spots may pock the palms of hands and soles of feet, a sign that the infection has progressed to its second stage. Fever, swollen glands, a sore throat, hair loss, headaches, and other symptoms of this stage may emerge and resolve on their own. Without treatment, however, late-stage syphilis will develop. This can take up to 20 years, but it can involve such extensive damage to vital organs like the brain, heart, blood vessels, nerves, liver, bones, and joints that a person can’t survive.
- Genital Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Although 90 percent of cases will be resolved by a person’s own immune system within two years, some of the 40-plus HPV strains that infect the genitals boost the risk of certain cancers, according to the CDC. Cervical cancer, for one, can be especially dangerous because it tends not to produce symptoms until it’s quite advanced. More rarely, HPV infections can lead to vulvar, vaginal, anal, or penile cancer. Since the infection is caused by a virus, there is no treatment (although warts can be removed by medications or physicians). Regular pap tests and exams are recommended to flag signs of cancer before it can develop. Gardasil, a vaccine that can protect women against some of the strains linked to cervical cancer, is recommended for some women.
- Gonorrhea. Like chlamydia, this common bacterial STD can progress silently, leaving people with intractable health problems. Symptoms like discolored penile discharge or signs that mimic those of a bladder or vaginal infection may occur. Unnoticed and untreated, gonorrhea can cause infertility in both men and women. It is also a common culprit behind pelvic inflammatory disease. Once treated with antibiotics, people can be re-infected by untreated partners.
- Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). Pelvic inflammatory disease occurs when the uterus, fallopian tubes, or other female reproductive organs become invaded by infection-causing bacteria. Two common culprits are chlamydia and gonorrhea. Each year, more than 100,000 women are left infertile by an untreated case of PID, which can be cured with antibiotics, according to the CDC. PID can lead to lifelong pelvic pain, pus-filled internal abscesses and can even raise the odds of ectopic pregnancies. Suspicious vaginal discharge, painful sex or urination, and bleeding between periods may all be signs that something is awry.
- Trichomoniasis (trich). A one-celled parasite causes this STD. A frothy, odorous, greenish-yellow discharge can be a sign that a woman has it. Infected men don’t usually show signs, though some may experience abnormal penile discharge or pain after urinating or ejaculating. Trichomoniasis can make women more likely to contract HIV if exposed and may increase the likelihood that an HIV-infected woman will transmit HIV to her partner. Trichomoniasis is curable with medications.
- Genital Herpes. Some victims have bouts of painful genital sores, but many who are infected with genital herpes are unaware because symptoms may be absent or confused with the flu. Caused by two types of the herpes simplex virus, genital herpes has no cure, though antiviral medications may help manage the severity of outbreaks. Because it’s a chronic infection, genital herpes can be psychologically distressing for those infected and can cause potentially deadly infections in babies if transmitted from a mother. Transmission from mother to baby is rare, but freshly acquired genital herpes late in pregnancy can boost the risk, says the CDC.
- Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). The virus that causes AIDS can lie dormant with no signs for over a decade, though symptoms include extreme fatigue, swollen lymph glands, persistent diarrhea, dry cough, rapid weight loss, pneumonia, night sweats, and a recurring fever. While any of these symptoms alone may not be cause for alarm—since they could be caused by a slew of other illnesses—the only way to be sure is to be tested, advises the CDC. Untreated, HIV can cripple the immune system. The infection may not ever advance to AIDS, but if it does, it can be deadly. While drugs can halt the progression of the virus, no cure exists. Click here to learn more about the prevalence of HIV infections among black women or here to read about one young woman’s battle with HIV.
- Chancroid. This bacterial infection is quite common in Africa and Asia and is also infecting Americans. Chancroid can cause ulcer-like genital sores that are often accompanied by swollen lymph nodes around the groin. Like many STDs, untreated chancroid makes it easier to acquire and spread HIV.
- Crabs. Days after sex or intimate contact, the intense itching may start—a sign that these blood-sucking parasites may have chosen an unfortunate place to call home. The tiny lice typically spread by moving from one person’s pubic hair to a partner’s, although it is possible to acquire crabs from clothing, furniture, or bedding. The critters can survive without a human host for about 24 hours.