We are currently experiencing an increase in the number of cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Unlike many “epidemics,” this trend cannot only be reversed, but can ultimately be prevented if each of us takes personal responsibility for our sexual health and conduct.
Left untreated, syphilis can lead to serious health problems later in life including heart disease, seizures, visual and other sensory problems, and occasionally, death. Fortunately, antibiotics can cure syphilis when it is recognized early. The first sign of syphilis is the chancre, a usually painless, ulcer on the skin of the genitals, anus, or mouth that has a “punched out” appearance. A blood test called the VDRL usually confirms the diagnosis.
Gonorrhea is caused by a bacterium that lives on the mucous membranes of the mouth, throat, rectum, urinary tract, and cervix. In men, the primary symptom is pain and burning upon urination with a pus-like discharge appearing 2-10 days after exposure. In women, gonorrhea is a common cause of pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can result in infertility and sterility. Not everyone infected shows symptoms, however. Gonorrhea is diagnosed by laboratory culture and is treated with antibiotics.
This STD has recently come to light as a cause of PID in women, and of “non-specific urethritis” in men. The symptoms of chlamydia are usually pain or burning upon urination and itching of the urethra. It is difficult to culture the chlamydia organism, so diagnosis is made by ruling out other possible causes. Special antibiotics (with both partners receiving treatment to prevent reinfection) are used to treat chlamydia.
Herpes is caused by one of two viruses that enters the body through the thin skin of the genitals, anus, mouth, or lips, and takes up residence inside nerve cells. Breakouts occur when the nervous system is stimulated (by local injury, stress, cold weather, etc.) or when the immune system is suppressed (sunburn, a cold, flu, etc.). Herpes “cold sores” appear on the skin where the infection first occurred but can spread to adjacent areas. The drug acyclovir can greatly reduce the duration and frequency of herpes outbreaks. Persons with active herpes lesions can infect others, however, so they should not have sex until the skin has completely healed.
AIDS is the latest and most dangerous STD. It is caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which cripples the immune system, leaving a person highly susceptible to infections and certain kinds of cancer. Death usually occurs within months or years after the diagnosis. The virus is transmitted by intimate, unprotected, sexual intercourse or the sharing of needles. Anyone with an active sex life, multiple partners, or history of IV drug use, may be at risk for exposure to HIV. Short of abstinence, condoms with a spermicide offer the best protection.