Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), once called venereal diseases, are among the most common infections in the United States today. More than 20 STIs have now been identified, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate they affect more than 19 million men and women in this country each year. The annual medical costs of STIs in the United States are estimated to be up to $14 billion.
Understanding the basic facts about STIs—the ways in which they are spread, their common symptoms, and how they can be treated—is the first step toward preventing them. Researchers supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are looking for better methods to diagnose, treat, and prevent STIs, including supporting research on vaccines and topical microbicides.
These are some key points about STIs in the United States.
STIs affect men and women of all backgrounds and economic levels. They are most prevalent among teenagers and young adults. Nearly half of all STIs occur in young people 15 to 24 years old. Some STIs disproportionately affect certain minority populations, such as gonorrhea that affects African Americans 18 times more than it does whites.
Most of the time, STIs cause no symptoms, particularly in women. When and if symptoms develop, they may be confused with those of other diseases not transmitted through sexual contact. Even when an STI causes no symptoms, however, a person who is infected may be able to pass the disease on to a sex partner. That is why many healthcare providers recommend periodic testing or screening for people who have more than one sex partner.
Health problems caused by STIs tend to be more severe and more frequent for women than for men.
Some STIs can spread into the womb (uterus) and fallopian tubes to cause pelvic inflammatory disease, which in turn is a major cause of both infertility and tubal (ectopic) pregnancy. Tubal pregnancy can be fatal.
STIs in women also may be associated with cervical cancer. One STI, human papillomavirus infection, may cause genital warts and may lead to cervical and other genital cancers.
STIs can be passed from a mother to her baby before, during, or immediately after birth. Some of these infections of the newborn can be cured easily, but others may cause life-long disabilities or death. Examples of these STIs are gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes simplex, and HIV.
When diagnosed and treated early, many STIs can be treated effectively. Some infections have become resistant to the medicines used to treat them and now require newer types of treatments. Experts believe that having STIs, other than HIV infection, increases one’s risk for becoming infected with HIV.
Everyone who is sexually active should learn more about STIs and then make choices about how to minimize their risk of getting these diseases and spreading them to others. Knowledge of STIs, as well as honesty and openness with sex partners and healthcare providers, can be very important in reducing the incidence and complications of STIs.