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What’s The Truth Behind Sexually Transmitted Infections? The 9 Common Types.

Learn the truth about STIs with our guide to the 9 most common types and thier causes.

Let’s go into a subject that rarely comes up in our casual conversations but is absolutely important to address. These are sexually transmitted infections, commonly known as STIs. They can cause problems beyond your health, and understanding them for better sexual health is very important.

Let’s begin by understanding these infections and how they cause worry for both genders.

What Are Sexually Transmitted Infections?

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are the type of infections that spread from one person to another through sexual contact. These infections usually spread via vaginal, oral, and anal sex. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over one million sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are contracted daily on a global scale. In most cases, people contracting these infections are usually unaware of them, as they rarely have any defining symptoms.

However, it is established that at some point in their lives, most sexually active people will be infected with it. There is no difference in how likely someone is to get an STI based on their gender, race, or age. Even pregnancy doesn’t stop women from contracting an STI infection.

Types of Sexually Transmitted Infections

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes about 30 sexually transmitted infections. These sexually transmitted infections can either spread through bacteria, viruses, or parasites.

Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than one million STIs are acquired every day.

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Common Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI)

Here are a few of the most common contracted infections listed, from the most common to the least common type.

1. Chlamydia

This type of STI is the most common bacterial infection caused by the bacteria called Chlamydia trachomatis. A lot of people get this infection when they have anal, vaginal, or oral intercourse. Young women are more likely to get chlamydia than men. In fact, females in the US have an estimated twofold greater infection rate than males. As the most common site of this infection for women is the cervix, it can also pass from mother to child while giving birth.

40–95% of its symptoms don’t appear in people, so it is considered a silent STI. These symptoms usually manifest themselves in 1-3 weeks following unprotected sex. And if they occur, they can be the following:

  • Pain
  • Burning and painful sensation while urinating
  • Abnormal discharge from vagina/penis
  • Pain in the lower abdomen.

Some symptoms are also experienced by men and women separately, such as

Testicular pain Cervix inflammation (cervicitis)
Throat symptoms Bleeding or spotting between periods
Inflammation around the urethral opening Pain during sex (dyspareunia)
Swelling around testes Bleeding after sex

Because sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may show up differently in men and women, anybody experiencing any of the following symptoms should consult a medical expert. Because if left untreated, especially in women, it can spread to the ovaries and fallopian tubes and cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). This can further lead to infertility.

2. Human Papilloma Virus (Genital Warts)

This type of sexually transmitted infection is caused by a virus known as the Human papillomavirus (HPV). It is one of the most commonly spreading sexually transmitted diseases, with almost 40 types of HPV strains.

This STI can be transferred from one person to another easily via oral, vaginal, and anal intercourse.b It has been found that most sexually active people will get an HPV infection at some point in their life, especially around the age of 18 to 28 years.

While most HPVs don’t cause much harm and get better on their own, some of these strains (HPV (types 6 and 11) can cause warts around the genital areas. It does not spread to other parts of the body. The other strains can cause throat, mouth, and penis/cervix infections, as well as cancer (HPV 16 and 18) in some cases.

There are almost 100 types of HPVs and 40 of them can effect genitals

In most cases, genital warts do not cause discomfort like any other warts on the body, although they can cause:

  • Uncomfortable or itchy feeling
  • Dampness around the warts
  • May swell or bleed
  • Cause painful or less flow of urine
  • Bleeding during sex or afterwards

    APD Genital Warts Symptoms
    Genital warts

These warts look like small red or pinkish-colored growths in clusters of three or four. The top appears to be like a cauliflower lumped together. Even though they can grow into enormous masses, they can be as little as 5 millimetres. They can develop anywhere in the vaginal region but can also be seen in the cervix and anus in women. In men, however, they develop around the anus, scrotum, penis shaft, and tip.

While some other warts can also develop on the hands, they don’t spread sexually from one person to another. Around 80% of these warts get cleared spontaneously within 18–24 months. However, if treated, they can resolve within a few weeks or months. But in common circumstances, it is always suggested to get vaccinated for HPV after the age of 45.

3. Genital Herpes

Another most common sexually transmitted disease is genital herpes with almost  572,000 occur annually around the globe. The herpes simplex virus is the main culprit behind this type of STI. Once anyone contracts this virus, it’s a long-lived condition. Like all other sexually transmitted infections, it may also not have any visible symptoms.

Two different but similar viruses cause herpes in humans.

Approximately 1 in 6 Americans have genital herpes, while over 50% of Americans have oral herpes. While oral ones spread from saliva, kissing, touching a person’s face, and sharing utensils, the spread of genital herpes occurs from sexual intercourse (even vaginal-vaginal), oral sex, genital skin-to-skin contact, toilet seats, and from infected mother to child.

The first outbreak of symptoms can occur anywhere between 2 to 12 days after the contact, but they most commonly appear around 4 days after the contact. The first few symptoms include a simple oral infection, fever, and swollen glands. But as time progresses, other symptoms can occur, such as,

  • A sensation of ringing in the genital area.
  • Blisters and sores around the infected genital area can also become painful sores later.
  • Sores that may ooze and bleed.
  • Pain and itching even before sores appear.
  • Burning and pain during urination.
  • Unusual discharge from vagina or penis.

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The area of the sores are usually the sites that come in contact with a partner during sexual activity. In men, this can be the penis, and in women, it can be the labia, clitoris, and vulva. Sores on the anus, buttocks, and inner thighs are also possible.

After the first outbreak, the virus remains in the body for a lifetime, but the outbreak may completely heal in 8-10 days. These symptoms may occur again as a recurrence in 50% of the infectees but become milder, less frequent, and less problematic.

4. Gonorrhea

One of the most common and easily treatable STIs is Gonorrhea, also known as “the clap” or “the drip.” It spreads from a bacterial infection by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhea. It is most common among teens and people under 25 and occurs simultaneously with chlamydia.

The spread of gonorrhea occurs via vaginal and oral sex. It can also spread to the eyes if a contaminated hand touches the eyes. But it cannot spread by touching infected people or their food or drink, kissing, hugging, holding hands, or even sitting on shared toilet seats.

Often, like many other STIs, it doesn’t cause any symptoms at first, especially in females. The only prominent symptoms in women are

  • Spotting between periods
  • Unusual discharge of green and yellow color
  • Painful sex and urination

In men, it has evident symptoms of penile discharge, inflammation around the penis, and painful urination. All these symptoms usually occur after 3–5 days of infection.

Even though gonorrhea is easily treatable, any delays in treatment can lead to serious health complications in both men and women. In women, it can also lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and even infertility. What other factors can lead to infertility? We have a whole blog post about it. To read it, click here.

5. Trichomoniasis

Another very common sexually transmitted infection is Trichomoniasis, caused by the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis. Also known as Trich, it ranks high globally, with more prevalence found in older women than men and more in African American women than white or Hispanic women.

Like all other STIs, trichomoniasis also spreads from unprotected sex and genital touching, and even the symptoms don’t occur in 70% of cases. However, when they occur, they manifest as,

Men Women
Itching or irritation inside the penis Bad odor, greenish or yellowish vaginal fluid
Thin white discharge Genital itching, burning, redness, or soreness
Bleeding after sex

Some common symptoms in both genders include pain while urinating or having sex and frequent urination.

These symptoms usually appear within 5–28 days of the infection. Treating this sexually transmitted infection is more important, as it tends to cause other STIs such as gonorrhoea, HPV, HSV, and, most significantly, HIV.

6. Syphilis

One of the most common contagious sexually transmitted infections is syphilis. It is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. It is more common among men than women. Globally, 7.1 million sexually active men acquired syphilis in 2020, as per WHO reports.

It spreads directly from a lesion on the infected person’s body. The bacteria can easily spread through a cut on the skin or by mucus membranes, especially during sexual activity. It can also spread via needles and injections, or by mother to a baby.  Toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools, hot baths, bathtubs, shared garments, or eating utensils cannot transmit it.

There are four stages of syphilis, and each one has its own series of signs. People are very likely to infect their sexual partners with the disease during the first and second phases. These phases are named primary,secondary, latent, and late syphilis. Here is a small, summarized table for each stage and prominent symptoms. image10 1

Stage Timeline Symptoms
Primary Syphilis 3-4 weeks after exposure Painless sore (chancre) on genitals or mouth; sore heals on its own
Secondary Syphilis 1-6 months after chancre heals Rough, bumpy rash on body (including palms and soles); fever, fatigue, wart-like sores, muscle aches, weight loss, headaches, hair loss, swollen lymph nodes
Latent Syphilis Follows secondary stage if untreated  No outward symptoms; possible mild flare-ups
Late (Tertiary) Syphilis Years to decades after the initial infection Serious health issues: brain damage, dementia, heart disease, movement disorders, nerve damage, seizures, blindness

It can be treated in primary and secondary phases. So, if you have any of the above symptoms and are sexually active, you should surely consult a doctor right away.

7. Hepatitis B (HBV)

Hepatitis B (HBV) is a viral infection that causes inflammation in the liver. It can spread through blood, infected needles, toothpaste, and even sexual activity. Blood, vaginal fluids, semen, and breast milk can all have viruses that cause hepatitis. A 2021 research also proposed that sexual contact is the most common cause of HBV in the USA.

People infected with HBV also don’t show any symptoms, especially genital symptoms. But if they occur, they include the following,

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Yellow eyes and skin
  • Dark colored urine

8. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

HIV is the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV is passed from person to person through contact with infected body fluids, such as semen, vaginal fluid, or blood.

If you have HIV, it will attack your whole immune system. When the immune system gets weaker, it can’t fight off infections and diseases as well. People who have HIV are diagnosed with AIDS when they get illnesses, pneumonia, or some types of cancer that a healthy immune system would normally fight off.

9. Bacterial Vaginosis

When certain bacteria multiply uncontrollably in the vagina, a condition known as bacterial vaginosis (BV) or vaginitis develops. Although it is not a sexually transmitted infection, having a new sex partner or partner increases your risk of contracting it. A higher risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is associated with BV.

Like all other viral hepatitis infections, prevention, and vaccination are the best option.

Risk Factors of STIs

Sexually transmitted infections are not related to a person’s sex history. But there are certain factors, that can increase the chances of getting an STI, They are,

Symptoms of STIs

Here is a brief summary of all the prominent symptoms of STIs discussed above.

STI Common Symptoms
1. Chlamydia Often asymptomatic, pain or burning during urination, increased discharge, pain during intercourse, abdominal pain
2. Gonorrhea Asymptomatic in many cases, burning sensation during urination, increased discharge, painful/swollen testicles
3. Herpes (HSV) Outbreaks of sores and blisters, itching, pain during urination, and flu-like symptoms during the initial outbreak
4. Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Asymptomatic, genital warts, potential for cervical and other cancers, depending on the strain
5. Syphilis Staged symptoms: primary (chancre), secondary (rash, swollen lymph nodes, fever), later stages can cause more severe health issues
6. Trichomoniasis Often asymptomatic, frothy yellow-green discharge with odor, discomfort during intercourse, irritation, and itching. 
7. HIV/AIDS  Early stages mimic flu (fever, sore throat, fatigue), later stages (weight loss, recurrent infections, night sweats)

Diagnosing a Sexually Transmitted Infection

Diagnosis of a sexually transmitted infection is very important, especially at early stages, to prevent further complications. Your role is to tell them honestly about the sexual history and number of partner(s) and if you have had any STI before.

To diagnose an STI, a doctor needs to look at the sexual history of the patient. They will also inquire about symptoms. However, it is very hard for a doctor to justify an infection as an STI by just looking at the symptoms. So they may undergo some series of tests such as,

Lab Tests

There are no special tests done to diagnose an STI, but the majority of sexually transmitted infections (STIs)—including chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, and HPV—are detected by blood, urine, or swab tests conducted in sexual health clinics or by healthcare providers’ offices.

Small tabular data may help in the use of different types of tests for different types of STIs.

Bacterial/Fungal STI Blood Test Urine Test Swab Test
Chlamydia No Yes Yes
Gonorrhea No Yes Yes
Syphilis Yes No Yes
Trichomoniasis No Yes Yes

Viral STI Testing Methods

Viral STI Blood Test Urine Test Swab Test
Herpes Yes No Yes
HPV No No Yes

Specific STI Testing Details

Accurate diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) necessitate the use of particular testing procedures. Specifics for STI testing are detailed below:

STI Common Tests Sample Type Result Time
Gonorrhea & Chlamydia NAAT, Culture Urine, Swab 1-7 days
Syphilis VDRL, Rapid Test Blood, Swab Under 1 week, 15 mins
Trichomoniasis Rapid Test, Lab Analysis Urine, Swab 10 mins – 1 week
Herpes Blood Test, Swab Blood, Swab 1-3 days
HPV Cervical Cell Test Swab 1-3 weeks

By knowing these testing methods and how to use them correctly, one can be assured that STIs are detected quickly and correctly, leading to better treatment results and lower transmission rates.

At-Home Test Kits

In some countries, you can get a self-testing kit to do at home. They are usually available for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis B, herpes simplex virus-2, and HPV. In these tests, samples are taken by urine, blood, and vagina/rectal swabs and then sent to the laboratory for testing. The results are generated as per the STI and can be viewed online. However, these tests are not found to be much more reliable than those taken by doctors due to the possibility of human error.  So, it is always suggested to consult a doctor fo a double check still.

We know now that many STIs are asymptomatic, but fortunately, most of them have effective treatments available.

Luckily, most STIs can be treated and cured. 

Get regular checkups and talk to your doctor or another medical professional if you have any worries about STIs. If you don’t treat it, it can lead to major problems.

To learn more about how important it is to practice good sexual hygiene and the different ways that STIs can be treated. Please refer to our next article about best practices for sexual health and treatments for sexually transmitted infections.

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Dr Aimen

Being a Doctor by profession, Aimen is passionate about helping people get better health in their lives. Aimen enjoys her research on Prime With Time subjects and strives to create better awareness of the problems and changes related to women's health.
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