According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rates of several sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the United States skyrocketed to a record high in 2018. The combined number of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis cases — which are among the most common STDs — increased by more than 100,000 compared to 2017. Chlamydia infection alone has reached 1.7 million cases.
A sexually transmitted disease (STD) is passed from an infected person, usually unknowingly, to an uninfected person during sex, but it can also spread whenever there is bodily fluid exchange. Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are bacterial infections that can be spread simply by touching an infected area. It isn’t necessary for a man to ejaculate in order to pass the infection to his partner. Unfortunately, people infected with these diseases may not know it.
“These infections often have minimal or no symptoms in their early stages,” says Varinthrej Pitis, MD, a primary care physician at Scripps Clinic Carmel Valley. “Without treatment, persistent or inappropriately treated infections can lead to serious complications from pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, neurological consequences, joint problems and congenital birth defects.”
Learn more about these different types of STDs:
People between the ages of 15-25 account for almost two-thirds of new chlamydia infections. In addition to being spread through any type of sexual contact, chlamydia can be passed from a woman to her baby during childbirth.
Symptoms: Chlamydia has no symptoms in about 75 percent of women and 50 percent of men infected with the disease. It is often not discovered until a woman has a gynecological exam. Women who do have symptoms may notice the following:
- Unusual vaginal discharge, itching or burning
- Bleeding between periods
- Painful periods
- Abdominal pain with fever
- Pain during urination or sex
Chlamydia symptoms in men may include:
- Clear or cloudy discharge from the penis
- Burning and itching at the tip of the penis
- Pain and swelling around the testicles
- Pain during urination
Other symptoms may include:
- Rectal itching, mucus-like rectal discharge and spots of bright red blood on toilet tissue
- Painful rectum during bowel movements
- Sore throat and swollen lymph nodes in the neck
Treatment: Most cases are treated successfully with oral antibiotics.
“With all of these diseases, your partners need to also be treated to prevent reinfection and spreading the diseases further,” says Dr. Pitis. “If you are exposed to the bacteria again after being treated, you can still develop a recurrent infection.”
Complications: Untreated chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease in women, which may lead to infertility. Antibiotics cannot treat damages that have already been done by the infection, such as scar tissue from an infection that can lead to infertility. In pregnant women, it may increase the risk of premature birth, premature rupture of membrane, or ectopic pregnancy, which means the fertilized egg develops outside of the uterus. Infected babies may develop an eye infection or pneumonia. In men, untreated chlamydia can lead to infection of the urethra or epididymis (the tube that carries sperm from the testes).
Like chlamydia, pregnant women can pass gonorrhea to their newborn babies.
Symptoms: Gonorrhea often has no symptoms.
Women’s symptoms may include:
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Painful urination or intercourse
- Vaginal bleeding between periods
- Abdominal or pelvic pain
Men’s symptoms may include:
- Painful urination
- Discharge from the penis
- Pain or swelling in a testicle
Symptoms also may include:
- Rectal itching, pus-like discharge and spots of bright red blood on toilet tissue
- Eye pain, pus-like discharge from one or both eyes and sensitivity to light
- Sore throat and swollen lymph nodes in the neck
- Warm, red, swollen and extremely painful joints
Treatment: Gonorrhea is treated with two different antibiotics due to its rising resistance over years. We have not seen treatment failure in the US according to the CDC, but there have been reported cases in Europe.
Complications: Without appropriate treatment, gonorrhea complications are similar to chlamydia. It may cause pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and increase the risk of infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In addition, bacteria can spread through the bloodstream, infecting the joints, heart valves, bone and brain, and causing fever, skin sores and rash. Babies who contract gonorrhea during childbirth may have serious vision problems and infections.
Syphilis can be spread through sexual activity, kissing, or bodily contact with skin sores that develop in the early stages of the disease.
Symptoms: Syphilis has three stages. The disease also may be latent, which means it is inactive and has no symptoms.
- Primary (early) syphilis causes small, painless sores on the genitals or mouth between 10 to 90 days after exposure. Because the sores are painless, most people who are infected are not aware. The sores heal within six weeks even without treatment, but the person is still infected and contagious.
- Secondary syphilis starts six weeks to six months after exposure and causes a copper-colored rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, along with body rashes. Other symptoms may include moist warts in the groin, white patches inside the mouth, swollen lymph glands and fever. Secondary syphilis symptoms also go away without treatment.
- The third stage, tertiary syphilis, affects the heart, brain and nerves and may cause dementia, paralysis, blindness, hearing loss and impotence. Without treatment, syphilis can be fatal.
Treatment: Treatment usually involves one or more doses of antibiotics.
Complications: Babies who contract congenital syphilis (passed from mother to baby during pregnancy) may be stillborn or die shortly after birth; the rates of newborn deaths linked to congenital syphilis jumped by 22 percent in 2018. Others may have developmental delays, seizures, deafness or other significant health problems.
Follow these precautions to help reduce your risk of these STDs:
- Use condoms correctly every time you have sex.
- Limit sexual contact to one uninfected partner.
- Get tested for STDs when you have a new partner or if you have symptoms.
- Avoid sex with someone who has symptoms or has several partners.