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Sexually Transmitted Diseases 101

February 2001

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Chlamydia is the most common STD in the United States, and also the most invisible. Chlamydia is a microscopic parasite that can cause sterility in women and men. Four million American men and women become infected every year.

In women, chlamydia infects the cervix and can spread to the urethra, Fallopian tubes and ovaries. It can cause bladder infections and serious pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), sterility and ectopic pregnancy, which occurs when a fertilized egg implants in tissue outside of the uterus, and the placenta and the fetus begins to develop there. Up to 40 percent of women with untreated chlamydia will develop PID. Of those with PID, 20 percent will become infertile. In men, chlamydia infects the urethra and may spread to the testicles, causing epididymitis, which can cause sterility.

Chlamydia can also lead to Reiter's syndrome, especially in young men. Reiter's syndrome involves eye infections, urethritis and arthritis.


Symptoms of chlamydia include the following:

  • Discharge from the penis or vagina

  • Pain or burning while urinating, more than usual urination

  • Excessive vaginal bleeding

  • Painful intercourse for women

  • Spotting between periods or after intercourse

  • Abdominal pain, nausea, or fever

  • Inflammation of the rectum or cervix

  • Swelling or pain in the testicles

Seventy-five percent of women with chlamydia have no symptoms. Many women discover they have chlamydia only because their partners are found to be infected. Other women discover that they must have had it for some time when they are treated for the infertility that it can cause.

If symptoms appear, they do so in seven to 21 days. If your partner is a man, and he has a urinary tract infection, you may have chlamydia. Only one in four men with chlamydia have no symptoms.

Chlamydia is spread by vaginal and anal intercourse or from the birth canal to the fetus. In rare cases, it can be spread from the hand to the eye. Condoms offer very good protection against chlamydia. Chlamydia can be confused with gonorrhea and other conditions. Examination of tissue samples or urine is necessary for correct diagnosis.

Chlamydia can be treated successfully with antibiotics.


Cytomegalovirus (CMV) is a virus transmitted through many bodily fluids. No cure for CMV is known. CMV is also sexually transmitted. It is the most common infection in America that is spread from women to the developing fetus. CMV is also very dangerous for people with weakened immune systems. It can cause blindness and mental disorders. Like many other viruses, CMV can remain in the body for life.

Symptoms of CMV

No symptoms are generally associated with a person's initial infection with CMV. But re-infection with CMV, or infection with other STDs such as HIV and hepatitis B, may reactivate the virus and cause illness. Symptoms of CMV include:

  • Swollen glands, fatigue, fever and general weakness (CMV causes eight percent of the cases of mononucleosis)

  • Irritations of the digestive tract, nausea, diarrhea

  • Loss of vision

CMV is spread by saliva, semen, blood, cervical and vaginal secretions, urine, and breast milk. It is spread through:

  • Close personal contact

  • Vaginal, anal and oral intercourse

  • Blood transfusion and sharing IV drug equipment

  • Pregnancy, childbirth and breast-feeding

Adults usually become re-infected through sexual activity. Women who want to become pregnant and who suspect they may have the virus should consider testing for CMV. CMV infection can be detected through a blood test.

Condoms can provide protection against CMV during vaginal, anal and oral intercourse, but kissing and other intimate touching can spread the virus.


Gonorrhea cases in the U.S. are reported at a rate of more than one million every year. Gonorrhea is a bacterium that can cause sterility, arthritis and heart problems. In women, gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can result in ectopic pregnancy or sterility. During pregnancy, gonorrhea infections can cause premature labor and stillbirth.

To prevent serious eye infections that can be caused by gonorrhea, drops of antibiotics are routinely put into the eyes of newborn babies immediately after delivery.

Symptoms of Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea symptoms for women include:

  • Frequent, often burning urination

  • Menstrual irregularities, pelvic or lower abdominal pain

  • Pain during sex or pelvic examination

  • Yellowish or yellow-green discharge from the vagina

  • Swelling or tenderness of the vulva

  • Arthritic pain

Symptoms for men include a pus-like discharge from the urethra or pain during urination. Symptoms appear in men in one to 14 days.

Eighty percent of the women with gonorrhea and 10 percent of the men with the hepatitis B disease show no symptoms. If they appear, they appear in women within 10 days.

Gonorrhea is spread by vaginal, anal and oral intercourse. It can be detected by a microscopic examination of urethral or vaginal discharges. Cultures are taken from the cervix, throat, urethra or rectum. Both partners can be successfully treated with oral antibiotics. Often people with gonorrhea also have chlamydia. They must be treated for both infections at the same time.

Condoms offer very good protection against gonorrhea.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B virus (HBV) is the only STD preventable with vaccination.

Despite the availability of a vaccine, about 1.5 million people in the U.S. have HBV. Because they have not been vaccinated, about 200,000 people each year get HBV. While as many as 95 percent of adults with HBV recover completely, the virus can cause severe liver disease and death.

Unless they are treated within an hour of birth, 90 percent of the infants born to women with HBV will carry the virus. Pregnant women who may have been exposed to HBV should consider being tested before giving birth so that their babies can be vaccinated at birth or treated if they become ill. Like many other viruses, HBV may remain in the body for life.

Symptoms of HBV

Early symptoms of HBV include:

  • Extreme fatigue, headache, fever, hives

  • Lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting, tenderness in the lower abdomen

Later symptoms of HBV include:

  • Increase in abdominal pain

  • Dark urine

  • Clay-colored stool

  • Yellowing of the skin and white of the eye (jaundice).

HBV is very contagious, and may show no symptoms during its most contagious phases. If symptoms appear, they appear within four weeks.

HBV is spread in semen, saliva, blood and urine by intimate and sexual contact, from kissing to vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse; use of unclean needles to inject drugs; accidental sticks with contaminated needles in the course of health care.

A blood test can diagnose HBV. In most cases, HBV infection clears within four to eight weeks. Some people, however, remain contagious for the rest of their lives.

Condoms offer some protection against HBV during vaginal, anal and oral intercourse, but the virus can be passed through kissing and other intimate touching. Children and adults who do not have HBV can get permanent protection with a series of HBV vaccinations.

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This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.
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