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Sexually Transmitted Diseases and HIV/AIDS

July 27, 2015

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HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. It is present in blood, vaginal secretions, semen, and breast milk. HIV can be spread through vaginal, oral, or anal sex without a condom or latex/polyurethane barrier. As many as one in five people living in the US do not know they are infected. Many people living with HIV look and feel healthy and do not think they are at risk for becoming sick or passing HIV to others.

Getting tested for HIV is part of routine, regular health care in many countries. The Public Health Agency of Canada, for example, recommends that HIV testing be discussed as part of routine medical care. The CDC now recommends testing all people ages 13 to 64, unless they have already been tested. It is also recommended that you get tested for HIV before beginning a new sexual relationship, regardless of your age.

The World Health Organization (WHO) makes different suggestions based on where you live. Where HIV is widespread, it recommends that HIV testing be offered to anyone who goes to a healthcare facility. Where HIV is less common, it suggests that HIV tests be offered to people who may be at higher risk of having been exposed to HIV.

It is important that you also get tested if:

  • You have ever had vaginal, anal, or oral sex without a condom
  • You have ever shared needles or syringes to inject drugs or other substances
  • You are uncertain of your partner's status or your partner is living with HIV
  • You are pregnant or are considering becoming pregnant
  • You have ever been diagnosed with an STD
  • You have hepatitis C
  • You begin treatment for tuberculosis (TB)

If left untreated, HIV can cause serious illness and death. If you test HIV+ there are effective medications to help you stay well. But you cannot get the health care and treatment you need if you do not know your HIV status. For more information on HIV, go to the section on The Well Project website called HIV: The Basics.


Pubic Lice ("Crabs")

Pubic lice live in the pubic hair and can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. They can also be spread through infected clothes and bedding. Symptoms may include intense itching and seeing lice or eggs in the hair. Pubic lice can be treated with over-the-counter medications. However, pregnant women must use products specially designed for them. Contaminated clothes, sheets, pillowcases, blankets, and towels should be washed in hot water and laundry soap to kill lice and eggs and to prevent being infected again.


This STD is caused by a bacterium. It can be spread by vaginal, anal, or oral sex without a condom or latex/polyurethane barrier. The disease has several phases. People with primary syphilis (early disease) may have pain-free open sores, called chancres, in the genital or anal area or around the mouth. The sores usually heal on their own in three to six weeks. People with secondary syphilis (a later stage of the disease) often have a rash and/or hair loss. If left untreated, syphilis can proceed to the latent stage during which it may have no visible symptoms but can cause damage to the heart, brain, and other organs. Syphilis can be successfully treated with antibiotics. Without treatment, it can hurt your body's organs, leading to severe illness and even death. Pregnant women can pass syphilis to their babies during pregnancy and childbirth, so it is important that pregnant women get tested for syphilis.


This STD is caused by a single-celled germ called a protozoa. It can be spread during vaginal, oral, or anal sex without a condom or latex/polyurethane barrier. Trichomoniasis is a common cause of vaginal infections. Symptoms may include a foamy, foul-smelling vaginal discharge and itching. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all. Trichomoniasis can be successfully treated with antibiotics. When a woman is infected with trichomoniasis, she and her sexual partner must both be treated, or the untreated partner can re-infect her.

Protecting Yourself and Others

You can greatly reduce your risk of getting many STDs by practicing safer sex. Some STDs like genital warts, herpes, and syphilis can be spread through contact with infected skin. Here are some tips for protecting yourself:

  • Use a latex condom for vaginal and anal sex or a plastic condom if you are sensitive to latex
  • The female condom can also prevent many STDs
  • Use condoms without lubricant for oral sex on a man
  • Use latex or plastic barriers, such as a dental dams or plastic wrap, for oral sex on a woman or for oral-anal sex; use latex or plastic gloves if you have cuts or sores on your hands
  • Use water-based lubricants (KY, Astroglide) with latex condoms or barriers
  • DO NOT use oil-based products (Vaseline, body lotions) because they destroy latex
  • Do not use lubricants or condoms that contain nonoxynol-9 (N-9), which can damage the lining of the vagina or anus and increase the chances of infection with HIV
  • Wash shared sex toys (dildos, vibrators) or put on a fresh condom between users
  • Know that some methods of birth control, like birth control pills, shots, implants, or diaphragms, will not protect you from STDs. If you use one of these methods also use a latex condom.
  • Talk with your sex partner(s) about STDs and using condoms
  • Talk honestly with your health care provider and your sex partner(s) about any STDs you or your partner has or has had
  • Have regular pelvic exams and cervical cancer screening, but remember that cervical cancer screening tests do not screen for STDs other than HPV
  • Talk to your health care provider about having routine STD screening as part of your annual physical or gynecological exam
  • Do not share needles or syringes for injecting drugs or other substances; if you do share drug equipment, be sure to clean your works

The Bottom Line

There are many sexually transmitted diseases including HIV. Some can be cured with treatment. Some, like HIV and herpes, cannot be cured, but can be managed. Many can cause serious health and fertility problems or even death if left untreated. Practicing safer sex can protect you from many, but not all, STDs.

See your health care provider right away about STDs if:

  • You have had sexual contact with someone who may have an STD
  • You have symptoms like genital sores, discharge, or burning when you urinate
  • You are pregnant

It is important for you to get regular STD tests if you (1) are sexually active, (2) have sex with more than one partner or (3) your partner has sex with people other than you. Many STDs do not have symptoms. If needed, get the treatment your health care provider recommends. Even if the symptoms go away, you still need to finish treatment. If symptoms continue after treatment, see your health care provider. Also make sure your partner(s) gets treated, so that you do not pass an infection back and forth.

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.


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