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Sexual Health

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Prevention - When to Call a Health Professional

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or venereal diseases (VD) are infections passed from person to person through sexual intercourse, genital contact, or contact with fluids such as semen, vaginal fluids, and blood (including menstrual blood). Many of these diseases can also be spread by sharing needles and other items that may be contaminated with infected blood or body fluids. Chlamydia, trichomoniasis, genital herpes, genital warts, gonorrhea, hepatitis B, and syphilis are among the most common STDs. HIV infection, which causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), is discussed on See HIV Infection and AIDS.

Chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis B, herpes simplex virus, HIV, and syphilis can be spread from an infected mother to her unborn baby or infant. At this time, the hepatitis B vaccine is the only immunization available to prevent the spread of disease from mother to child. If you are infected with any of these diseases, talk to your doctor about how you can protect your baby before and after it is born.

Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that affects millions of men and women. It may be difficult to detect chlamydia; about 75 percent of women and 20 percent of men with the disease have no symptoms, but they can still infect their sex partners. If symptoms do show up, they occur 1 to 3 weeks after exposure to the bacteria. In women, symptoms may include vaginal discharge or irregular menstrual bleeding, pain when urinating, or lower abdominal pain. In men, there may be a discharge from the penis and pain when urinating.

Chlamydia is easily treated with antibiotics. If undetected and untreated, chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (infection in the ovaries and fallopian tubes), which may lead to sterility (inability to conceive a child). Both sex partners need to be treated for chlamydia to keep from passing the infection back and forth.

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus, which also causes cold sores (See Cold Sores). Genital herpes is easily spread through sexual contact and any other direct contact with genital herpes sores.

Symptoms of the first genital herpes outbreak occur 2 to 30 days after contact with an infected person. It is also possible to be infected with genital herpes and have no symptoms.

The first case of genital herpes may be quite severe, with many painful sores or blisters. Fever, swollen glands, and headache or muscle aches may also occur. If the sores develop inside the urethra (the tube that carries urine out of the body) or the vagina, there may be pain when urinating or vaginal discharge. The sores crust over and disappear in 2 to 3 weeks.

There is no known cure for genital herpes. Most people with genital herpes have recurrent outbreaks. Having 4 outbreaks per year is typical. Outbreaks tend to become less frequent and less severe over time. Itching, burning, or tingling may occur at the place where the sores will later appear. Medication may be helpful if you have very frequent and severe outbreaks.

Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is spread through sexual contact. The warts generally look like small, fleshy bumps or flat, white patches on the lips around the vagina (labia), inside the vagina, on the penis or scrotum, or around the anus. A person infected with HPV may never develop genital warts, or the warts may be too small to be seen. Certain types of HPV seem to increase the risk of cervical cancer in women. A Pap smear can occasionally detect the virus.

If genital warts are bothersome or develop on the cervix, they can be removed by a health professional. However, wart removal does not cure HPV infection, and the warts may recur. There does not appear to be an effective cure for HPV infection at this time. However, in many people the infection goes away by itself and does not cause further problems.

Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection that is spread through sexual contact. Symptoms, which appear 2 days to 2 weeks after infection, may include painful or frequent urination, vaginal discharge, irregular menstrual bleeding, or a thick discharge from the penis. Many people who are infected have no symptoms.

Untreated gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and sterility in women; it can lead to prostate infection (See Prostate Infection (Prostatitis)) in men. Gonorrhea sometimes spreads to a person's joints, causing arthritis. Antibiotic treatment cures the infection. Both sex partners need to be treated to keep from passing the infection back and forth.

Hepatitis B is a viral infection that is spread through contact with infected blood, semen, or vaginal fluid See Hepatitis). The hepatitis B virus (HBV) is very contagious and may be spread to household contacts (other than sex partners) by sharing such things as razors and toothbrushes. Most people with hepatitis B recover completely after 4 to 8 weeks, but a small percentage of adults remain infected for months or years. Chronic infection can lead to life-threatening liver damage. Drug treatment for chronic HBV infection is not very effective.

People at risk for HBV infection (those with more than 1 sex partner; men who have sex with men; people who use intravenous drugs; and health care workers) should receive the hepatitis B vaccine. The vaccine is also recommended for all infants and children who have not been previously immunized. See Hepatitis B Virus (HBV).

For more information about hepatitis, call the Canadian Liver Foundation Help Line toll-free: 1-800-856-7266.

Syphilis is an infection that is spread through sexual contact and through sharing needles contaminated with an infected person's blood. When syphilis is spread through sexual contact, symptoms appear about 3 weeks after infection occurs. The first symptom is a red sore that appears on the genitals, rectal area, or mouth. The sore is usually painless and may go unnoticed. Swollen lymph nodes near the sore are another possible symptom.

If syphilis is not treated early, it can proceed to a second phase after about 2 months. Symptoms of the second phase include a rash, patchy hair loss, fever, swollen lymph nodes, and flu-like symptoms that are easily confused with other illnesses. Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics. If untreated, syphilis may cause serious problems and premature death.

Trichomoniasis is an infection that is spread through sexual contact. In women, the bacteria usually infect the vagina or urethra. In men, infections can develop in the urethra or under the foreskin of the penis.

Up to of women who have tricho-moniasis have no symptoms, and symptoms in infected men are rare. If symptoms do appear, they do so 4 to 28 days after infection occurs. Symptoms in women may include vaginal discharge, itching, and irritation and pain during sexual intercourse and when urinating. In men there may be a discharge from the penis and pain when urinating.

Trichomoniasis usually does not lead to serious illness. However, the infected person and his or her sex partner need to be treated with antibiotics to keep from passing the infection back and forth. Condoms should be used until treatment is completed.


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Preventing a sexually transmitted disease is easier than treating an infection once it occurs. Only monogamy (you and your partner have sex only with each other) between uninfected partners or sexual abstinence completely eliminates the risk.

  • Avoid sexual contact while you or your partner is being treated for a sexually transmitted disease.

  • If you or your partner has herpes, use condoms unless yours is a stable, monogamous relationship and you have considered the risks associated with having unprotected sex with a person who has genital herpes. Herpes is more likely to be transmitted when a person has open herpes sores or blisters. However, herpes can be transmitted when no sores or blisters are present.

  • The same behaviours that reduce your risk for HIV infection also reduce your risk of getting other STDs. See Prevention for additional Prevention guidelines, including condom use.

When to Call a Health Professional

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Call if you notice any unusual discharge from the vagina or penis; sores, redness, or growths on the genitals; or if you suspect that you have been exposed to an STD.

STDs need to be diagnosed and treated by a health professional. Your doctor or a clinician at your local health unit or public health office can diagnose and treat STDs. Your sex partner may also need to be treated, even if he or she has no symptoms. Otherwise, your partner may reinfect you or develop serious complications.

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