Frequently Asked Questions About Sexually Transmitted Diseases

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Harvard Medical School
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Chrome 2001
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Frequently Asked Questions About Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Frequently Asked Questions About Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Can you catch an STD such as HIV or herpes by sitting on a public toilet or sharing towels?

No. While crabs (pubic lice) and scabies can be spread person-to-person from infested objects, the more serious STDs cannot be spread this way. STDs such as human papilloma virus (HPV), gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and herpes simplex virus type 2 (genital herpes) are passed through sexual contact (vaginal, oral or anal intercourse) or from a mother to her infant during pregnancy or delivery. HIV is usually spread through sexual contact, by mother-to-child transmission (including breast-feeding), or through blood-to-blood contact.

Is cervical cancer an STD?

Yes. Virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). HPV is a sexually transmitted virus that infects up to 75 percent of sexually active American women during their lifetime.

Less than 5 percent of women who are infected with HPV will develop cervical dysplasia (abnormal cells) or cervical cancer. However, it is not possible to identify which women will develop these abnormalities. Thus, routine cervical cancer screening is recommended for all women.

Can you get genital herpes from someone who never had genital ulcers?

Yes. About 20 percent of sexually active Americans are infected with the herpes simplex type II virus, which causes most cases of genital herpes. Many of those infected never develop symptoms of the disease or they thought the symptoms were caused by something else. They may unknowingly pass the infection to their sexual partners, who may then develop genital ulcers. Those at highest risk have had multiple sexual partners, other STDs or a sexual partner who has had other STDs.

Can you have an STD without any symptoms?

Yes. Many people infected with gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, genital warts, genital herpes, trichomoniasis or HIV do not have any visible symptoms. Infected people may unknowingly pass the infection to their sexual partners. Therefore, you should use condoms with each new sexual partner until she or he has been tested for all STDs, including HIV. If you have ever had unprotected intercourse you should get tested as well.

Can STDs make you infertile?

Yes. About 10 percent of women who are infected with gonorrhea or chlamydia will develop pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes or ovaries. PID typically occurs during the childbearing years, when women are most sexually active. It is the number one preventable cause of infertility in the United States.

Can condoms prevent all STDs?

No. Using condoms dramatically decreases your risk for getting HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomoniasis. However, since condoms do not cover all skin surfaces, they may be less likely to protect you from diseases spread by skin-to-skin contact, such as genital herpes, genital warts and syphilis.

Can you get vaccinated against STDs?

Yes, vaccinations are available for hepatitis B and human papilloma virus (the cause of genital warts and most cervical cancers). You cannot receive a vaccine to prevent any other STDs. Currently, the only way to prevent an STD is by practicing safe sex.

How long will it take for an HIV test result to turn positive?

It depends upon the type of test. For someone with symptoms suggestive of acute HIV infection, a blood test called an HIV viral load can immediately determine if HIV infection is the cause of the symptoms. The more standard antibody test will turn positive in about 95 percent of people within three months of becoming infected. If your antibody test is negative six months after potential exposure, your chances of having contracted HIV at that time is close to zero.

Are all STDs curable?

No. Although you can take medicine to decrease symptoms of STDs such as HIV, genital herpes and genital warts, they are not curable. Some STDs such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and trichomoniasis can be treated with antibiotics.

Last updated September 27, 2013


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