Youth Ask Questions About Sexually Transmitted Diseases

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STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases)

Why do some people say STDs and some people say STIs?

This is a great question. Nowadays many doctors use the term "sexually transmitted infections" or STIs. There are other words to talk about the same group of illnesses, such as "sexually transmitted diseases" (STDs) or "venereal diseases" (VD). The word "venereal" started to sound negative and stigmatizing so it is not used so much anymore. But it is not a bad word, really. After all, it comes from the word "Venus" and that is the name of the goddess of love. That's because the group of infections it refers to are spread by sexual intercourse or "making love."

In reality, STDs are not different from any other kind of infection. Most STDs can be treated with medicine and cured. Other STDs, if not cured, can be controlled with medicine. It is always important to remember that a sexually transmitted infection is not a moral judgment on anyone. It just reflects that someone has had sexual contact. The best way to prevent an STD if you are sexually active is to make sure that you use a condom correctly every time you have sex.

How does your health affect your sexual relationships?

Well, for one thing, it is important to find out if your partner or you have any sexually transmitted infections before you have sex. Getting treatment for STDs (like gonorrhea, chlamydia, warts, HIV) is very important because you can get infected and infect others with STDs during any kind of sexual activity, including oral sex and "fingering” not just through intercourse.

What is the most common STD among teenagers today?

Chlamydia is the most common STD among teenagers. Approximately 80-90% of women who have chlamydia, have no symptoms ever. It is also uncommon for men to have symptoms -- only about 30% of them do. The second most common STD is HPV or the human papilloma virus, which is the virus that can lead to genital warts. Some types of HPV also cause cervical cancer in women and cancer of the penis in men. With HPV, like chlamydia, there are usually no symptoms and that is why it is important to get checked. In one study done by UC Berkeley 50% of the women tested were positive for HPV yet had no symptoms and were unaware that they had the virus.

Will I catch anything if I have anal or oral sex?

Yes, you could. Having anal or oral sex instead of vaginal sex will not stop you from catching or spreading STDs. You certainly can get an STD if you have oral or anal sex with someone who has an infection, even if you can't tell there is an infection by looking. Viruses like HIV and herpes, as well as other infections like gonorrhea can infect through the mouth, throat and the anus, as well as the vagina. So you still need to use a condom or a dental dam and practice safe sex when having anal or oral sex.

Can I get STDs from sitting on a toilet?

Not really. This is a popular myth, but the germs that cause STDs have evolved to live in human sexual organs and not on cold dry surfaces like toilet seats or doorknobs. People get STDs from sexual contact. But if they use condoms correctly they are usually protected.

What would happen to an STD that goes undetected?

This is a very good question. Many STDs can cause very severe complications if they are not treated. For example, if gonorrhea is not treated it can spread to your joints, skin, and even the retina of your eyes. Girls that get chlamydia or gonorrhea and don't know it, or don't get it treated, can develop serious infections of their reproductive organs that can prevent them from having children. If syphilis is not treated it can affect your heart, your brain and other organs. Women and men who have sexual infections that are not treated can pass them on to other people. Finally, women with untreated sexual infections can pass them on to their newborn babies, who can develop mental retardation, blindness, infections in their joints, or even die. It is very important that people with STDs get treated as early as possible.

How do you know when a someone is infected?

Sometimes you can tell by looking, and sometimes you can't. Some infections cause pain when urinating, or cause a discharge (or pus) to come out of the vagina or penis. Some infections cause sores (ulcers) or blisters or bumps on the genital region. These sores can spread infection very easily, so definitely do NOT have sex with something with suspicious looking sores on their nether regions. It isn't uncommon for someone to try and blame a sore or bump on something like acne or an ingrown hair, but it's better to be safe than find out you got an STD. But many people who have infections don't have any pain or any breaks in the skin. This doesn't mean you can't get an infection from them, it just means that there is no way to be really sure by looking. Even doctors can't see some infections, but they have tests that will show if a person has an infection or not. The best way to avoid infections if you are going to have sex is to make sure that you use a condom (male or female) from the beginning of sexual contact to the end.

If you have a disease and you have a kid, does the kid get infected?

This is an intelligent question, and if you are talking about STDs, unfortunately, the answer is usually yes. All of the STDs including gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, Hepatitis, herpes and others can be passed on to a newborn baby. Because of this, it is important for young men and women to do everything they can (like not having sex, or using condoms if they do have sex) to prevent getting these infections, and to get tested so they can have any infection treated as early as possible. It is also very important for girls who are pregnant to get prenatal care as early as they can. Most pregnant women are tested for STDs regardless of their recent sexual activity just to be safe!

What is the process of getting tested for STDs?

It's really easy - and it is a really good idea for everyone who has had sex to get tested for STDs. Many STDs are invisible and don't even cause symptoms that can be noticed, even though they are harmful to your health and can be passed to other people. The most common STD tests are urine tests - just pee in a cup! If you are at risk for HIV, you can get a blood test or a saliva (spit) test. You might need a blood test to test for syphilis. It is a good idea to have a physical exam by a doctor too, because some infections don't show up on the usual tests and are best detected by looking. Girls can get STD tests without getting a pelvic exam or a pap smear.

If you had sex and got Chlamydia, can you go to the doctor for treatment without your parents finding out?

Because it is so important to protect young people from sexually transmitted infections, in California anyone age 12 or older has a legal right to confidential treatment for Chlamydia and all other STDs. In fact, the doctor is not allowed to tell parents unless the teenager agrees.

Where can I go get tested for HIV and will anyone find out?

HIV testing can be either "confidential" or "anonymous" and as long as you are over 12 years old you don't need permission from anyone to have yourself tested. In "confidential testing" the doctor keeps a report of your test and it is in your medical records, so that if you have any health problems the doctor can know about your test results. In "anonymous testing" the results are only identified by a number, and only you know that number, so you can get the results, but no one else would know (not even your doctor) unless you tell them.

Most clinics and doctors provide confidential testing, but you can find an anonymous testing site through the AIDS Hotline (800-922-AIDS). In either case, you can get tested without your parents, friends, or people you know from school or work knowing that you went. The way it works is that you go to the clinic, get your blood drawn, and then come back in a few days or a week for your results. If you think you are at risk for HIV, it is a good idea to get tested. If you're negative, it will be a relief, and if you're positive, then you will know and can take the next steps to take the best care of yourself.

How can you get tested for Syphilis?

The only test for syphilis is a blood test. If you are at risk for syphilis it is very important that you get tested. Syphilis is easy to cure with penicillin if it is detected early, but syphilis causes very serious health problems and even death if it is not treated and cured.

How close are Doctors to curing HIV?

Not close at all. But there are good medicines available that can make your life longer and help keep you healthy if you have HIV. The medicine is now really effective at preventing HIV from developing into AIDS and can even lower the amount of the virus in your body to almost undetectable levels. They work by causing the virus to take a longer time to grow. However, the sooner you get tested and treated, the more likely you will have a positive outcome. The best way to protect yourself from getting HIV is to wear a condom every time you have sex, never share needles for any use and get tested for STDs and HIV so that, if you did get something, you could find out and start medicine as soon as possible. HIV is happening a lot among teenagers and it is not only homosexuals or men, but heterosexuals and women too.

If the person I had sex with does drugs, do I have any chances of getting a disease?

Drugs on their own cannot give anyone a disease through sex. However, if your partner is using needles to inject drugs there is an increased chance that they may get HIV from the needles and then pass it on to their sexual partners through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Also, when people use drugs or alcohol they are much less likely to use protection against STDs or pregnancy, so be careful and be smart and use protection every time.

Adapted from an article in Unity: Understanding the Needs and Imagination of Today's Youth, a publication of the Division of Adolescent Medicine, Children's Hospital, Los Angeles.