On Grey’s Anatomy, George O’Malley once got syphilis and became the laughing stock of other interns. As much as movies and TV series like to view sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as funny, trivial, foolish, and embarrassing, things are more grave and serious in real life. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 1 million STD cases are occurring every day. When left untreated for a certain period of time, STDs can translate to grave and long term health concerns that disrupt a person’s quality of life. Some of these acute health conditions include infertility and severe pelvic pain. In a few cases, untreated STDs also cause cancer.
How STDs spread
STDs primarily spread through sexual contact such as anal, vaginal and oral sex. However, particular diseases that cause cutaneous manifestations (skin conditions) such as herpes, syphilis, and human papillomavirus (HPV) can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, explaining why condoms do not fully protect a person from STDs. Besides sexual activities, several STIs can be passed on from mother to child throughout pregnancy and childbirth. Sharing needles and blood transfusions also allow for bacteria, viruses and parasites to attack a person’s body.
The prolonged effects of untreated STIs/STDs
A person can have STDs without knowing it. This is possible because no obvious symptoms are showing, leading them to think that they are perfectly healthy. Common STD symptoms revolve around abdominal pain, vaginal discharge, painful urination, fever, sores and bumps on the genitals or around the mouth area and skin rash. 8 most common STDs include chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV, syphilis, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, herpes and trichomoniasis. To date, syphilis, chlamydia, trichomoniasis and gonorrhea are curable while the other 4 diseases can only be alleviated (but not cured) by correct treatments and medications.
Chlamydia, also casually known as “the Clam”, is one of the most frequent sexually transmitted infections occurring in the United States. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported four million cases of chlamydial infections. One surprising fact is people can proceed with life normally for years because they do not know they have it. If left untreated, this bacterial infection may result in pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in females and people who have vaginas. PID also causes fever, lower abdominal pain, and scarring in the fallopian tubes. These scarrings can heighten the risk of having ectopic pregnancies. In men, chlamydia can cause infections in the urethra as well as swollen testicles.
Similar to chlamydia, many people are not aware of the fact that they are suffering from gonorrhea. Untreated gonorrhea leads to infections in the testicles that may end up in infertility. Gonorrhea also intensifies the risk of HIV transmission for any gender. One health condition caused by this disease is pelvic inflammatory disease that is often accompanied with chronic pain.
Syphilis is a disease caused by a bacteria called Treponema pallidum. In early stages, this disease can easily be cured by penicillin. There are 4 stages of syphilis: primary, secondary, latent and tertiary. Each of them presents different signs and symptoms. Initially, the first telling signs might include ulcers around the mouth, penis, vagina or anus. However, these ulcers are often painless. Once this disease develops into a later stage, other signs such as lumps, rashes, swollen glands, muscle pain, headaches and fatigue begin to take place. If syphilis is left untreated, severe damages will take over the body. Nerve damages and enlarged vessels near the heart are two of the permanent conditions caused by this disease. Syphilis screenings are highly recommended for pregnant women because if this STD is passed on to the baby, life-threatening conditions may happen.
Human papillomavirus (HPV)
Up to this day, more than 100 strains of HPV have been detected. Some of these strains are labeled “high risk” due to their ability to cause cancers. Most cervical cancers are caused by HPV. The tricky part is the fact that high risk HPV strains may cause no symptoms. Therefore, the only way to be certain is to get pap smears. One attempt to try to minimize the risk of getting HPV is to get vaccinated. Several symptoms of high-risk HPV cancer are:
- Itchy and painful vagina, sometimes bleeding also occurs
- The skin on the penis may change in color or texture
- Discharge or bleeding from the anus
- Difficulty in swallowing or breathing, ear pain, or continuous cough
Meanwhile, non-cancer-causing HPV strains can result in mild irritations such as genital warts that cause itching.
Although we have discussed HIV pretty extensively, especially about its progression and how it spreads, there can never be enough reminders to spread awareness of this disease time and again. HIV spreads through infected blood, semen, pre-cum, or vaginal fluid entering the body of HIV-negative people during sexual contact or sharing needles. HIV cannot be transmitted through kissing, hugging, sharing utensils or shaking hands. With the advancement of health technology and research, HIV is still an ongoing problem but no longer a death sentence. When treated with antiretroviral medication regularly, HIV-positive people can still lead long and wholesome lives. To boot, taking medications can result in undetectable viral load, making it impossible to pass the virus on to another person. However, if HIV is left untreated, it can develop to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS is the gravest stage of HIV that damages a person’s immune system so severely, making the body susceptible to infections which often end up in serious illnesses.
Making sure you don’t get STDs/STIs and why you should get tested
The only way to totally avert STDs/STIs is to abstain from any sexual activities. But, if you are sexually active, condoms are the best protection to ward off unwanted STIs because they create a barrier between your skin and your partner’s so that STIs cannot come through. Condoms also apply for oral sex and when using sex toys.
Getting tested is the only way to be certain that we are free from any STIs or STDs. As mentioned above, some people can go on for years without knowing they have them, especially with chlamydia and gonorrhea. Therefore, incorporating regular STD testing to your healthcare routine at least once a year is highly recommended. It is imperative that your partner also do this to ensure each other’s safety and make sex better.
Shim Clinic always has your back when it comes to sexual health and concerns. We are a STD clinic in Singapore that provides a wide range of services and treatments including STD tests, HIV tests and HIV treatment as well as HIV prevention such as HIV PEP and HIV PrEP.