STDs - Know Your Basics

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April is STD Awareness Month. Many of us are at home, sheltering in place, so this is a great time to review some STD basics! Not sure what they are? What happens if you have one? How to get tested for them? We have you covered.

Remember, when it comes to STDs, the best way to protect yourself is abstinence. All of us should be social distancing and practicing abstinence during this time, unless you live with your partner. However, when you choose to have sex in the future, using a condom will help protect you. You can find free condoms near you! Now, let’s jump onto some STD facts!

There are two main types of STDs -- bacterial and viral. Bacterial STDs are caused by a bacteria and are curable, but if you have it and take the medication to cure it, you can still get it again. The other type of STDs are caused by a virus. These are not curable, but there is medication you can take to reduce your symptoms.

Bacterial STDs

Chlamydia is a common bacterial STD that can be spread through any type of sex -- oral, vaginal, and anal. While most people who have chlamydia don’t have any symptoms, signs you may have this STD might be discharge, burning when you pee, or pain during sex. If someone gets tested for Chlamydia, they will either do a urine test (peeing in a cup) or a get swabbed during a physical exam. Chlamydia is curable with antibiotics. However, if someone has chlamydia and doesn’t get treatment, they may become infertile or unable to have children in the future. Chlamydia can also cause Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) in someone with a uterus, which can lead to chromic pain and eventually infertility.

Gonorrhea is a common bacterial STD that can be spread through any type of sex -- oral, vaginal, and anal. Most people who have gonorrhea don’t have any symptoms, but if someone does have symptoms, they might have discharge, burning, or pain in the lower abdomen. To get tested for gonorrhea, someone will get a urine test or swabbed during a physical exam. Gonorrhea is curable with antibiotics, but if not treated, it can cause someone to become infertile. Gonorrhea can also cause Pelvic Inflammatory Disease.

Syphilis is a bacterial STD that can be spread through any type of sex -- oral, vaginal, and anal -- and can also be spread by coming in contact with the sores that syphilis causes, called chancres. Because a chancre sore caused by syphilis may be painless and mild, some people don’t notice them. The sore will go away, but unless you get treated, you will still have syphilis. You could also later develop a rash, which will go away, but you will still have syphilis. To get tested for this STD, a doctor might look at your sore or rash if you have them. If not, a doctor or health professional can find out if you have syphilis with a simple blood test. Like other bacterial STDs, syphilis can be cured with an antibiotic. If someone has syphilis for a long time and does not get it treated, it can eventually cause brain damage, heart disease, and even death. Pregnant people can pass syphilis to their baby, which can be dangerous for the child.

Viral STDs

HPV, or human papilloma virus, is the most common STD in the United States. HPV can be transmitted through skin to skin contact with someone who has it. There are some strains of HPV that cause genital warts and some strains that can cause cancer. If you have genital warts, a doctor can look at them and diagnose HPV. People with a uterus can get tested for HPV during a PAP test. There is no HPV test for someone with a penis. There is also no cure for HPV, but you can treat genital warts if they develop. If left untreated, the warts will go away, but the person will still have HPV, which means they can give it to someone else. The best way to protect yourself against HPV is with the HPV vaccine. Getting the vaccine will protect your health now and in the future! Here’s more information about the HPV vaccine.

HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is the virus that leads to AIDS. HIV can be transmitted by coming in contact with the blood, semen, vaginal fluid (any fluid produced by the vagina), pre-ejaculatory fluid (or pre-cum), or breast milk of someone who has HIV. HIV often has no symptoms, but if someone has symptoms, they might include fever, fatigue, or rapid weight loss. HIV tests are easy. Sometimes they include swiping inside someone’s cheek, a finger prick, or a blood test. HIV cannot be cured, but people can take medication to slow down the virus in their body and make it so they cannot spread it to others. There is also a medication called PrEP, or Pre-exposure prophylaxis, that people can take if they do not have HIV and want to protect themselves. You should ask your doctor about PrEP if you are interested.


Herpes is a common viral STD that can be spread through skin-to-skin contact with someone who has it. Herpes causes blisters or sores. The sores will go away, but someone will still have herpes. To test for herpes, a doctor or health professional will either look at the blisters or may ask you to do a blood test. There is no cure for herpes but if you contract this STD, you can take medication to make the blisters less uncomfortable and make it harder to spread herpes to other people.

Bottom line

The best way to protect yourself against STDs is abstinence -- which is what we are supposed to be doing with the current social distancing rules. In the meantime, talking to your partner about using condoms to prevent STDs is important. You can also use this time apart to start a conversation with your partner about getting tested when social distancing recommendations are over. Consider making plans to get tested in the future.

If you have any symptoms of STDs or are worried you have one, you should contact your doctor or a clinic near you to find out what your options are while we are under stay-at-home orders. If you do not have any symptoms, make a plan with yourself to get tested at a clinic when the orders are lifted.

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