What is a sexually transmitted disease?

A sexually transmitted disease (STD), otherwise known as a sexually transmitted infection (STI), refers to an infection which is passed from one individual to another by way of sexual interaction.

How do you catch an STD?

It is possible to contract or pass on a sexually transmitted disease through intercourse, anal sex or oral sex. Trichomoniasis is also able to be passed by means of contact with damp towels or surfaces, such as towels, toilet seats and clothing. In some cases STDs do not cause any symptoms, but this does not mean that the infection is unable to be passed onto another person.

What are the symptoms of STDs?

Below are many of the most common STDs and the relevant symptoms you should look out for:

Bacterial vaginosis

In most cases there are no obvious signs though some women do experience the following:

  • Itching in and around the vagina.
  • Pain during urination.
  • Unpleasant smelling discharge.


Many people do not experience symptoms. Even so some possible symptoms include:

  • A burning sensation when urinating.
  • Bleeding between periods.
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge.

If Chlamydia is not treated symptoms can include:

  • Back pain.
  • Lower abdominal pain.
  • Fever (a high temperature).
  • Nausea.
  • Pain during sex.

Genital herpes

Some people may not develop any symptoms, but in the case of an outbreak of genital herpes symptoms are usually easy to spot and include:

  • Red bumps or blisters in the genital area.
  • Open sores in the genital area.
  • Fever (a high temperature).
  • Muscular aches and pains.
  • Headaches.
  • Pain during urination.
  • Itching and burning sensation in the genital area.
  • Swollen glands in the genital area.

Symptoms may come and go, while sores typically heal within 4 weeks.


Symptoms are usually mild and some people do not develop any at all. It is common for signs to be mistaken for bladder or vaginal infections as they are very similar. Symptoms include:

  • Pain during urination.
  • Bleeding between periods.
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge (this may be yellow or bloody).

Hepatitis B

In some cases no symptoms present. However, some signs of the condition include:

  • Muscle aches and headaches.
  • Tiredness.
  • Nausea.
  • Mild fever.
  • Diarrhoea.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • Dark urine.
  • Pale stools.
  • Stomach pain.
  • Yellowing of the whites of the eyes and skin (known as jaundice).


Symptoms may not develop for a long period of time, in some cases more than 10 years, but they generally include:

  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness).
  • Unexplained and severe weight loss.
  • Changes in the menstrual cycle.
  • Night sweats.
  • Mild fever.
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease.
  • Vaginal and oral yeast infections.
  • Blotches beneath the skin or around the eyes and mouth (these may be red, purple or brown).

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)

Though there are often no symptoms, some signs of the condition include:

  • Lesions in the cervix and vagina.
  • Warts in the genital area, which may be flat or raised.

Pubic lice

  • Itching.
  • The presence of lice in the pubic area.


Primary symptoms (during the initial stage):

  • Formation of a single sore which is painless; this may be in the genital area or mouth.

Secondary symptoms:

  • Fever.
  • Swollen glands.
  • Skin rashes on the feet and hands (these are not normally itchy).
  • Sore throat.
  • Hair loss.
  • Weight loss.
  • Tiredness.
  • Muscular aches and pains.

If the condition is allowed to progress symptoms can become severe and may include damage to the:

  • Heart.
  • Liver.
  • Kidneys.
  • Eyes.
  • Nervous system.
  • Blood vessels.
  • Bones.
  • Joints.


Symptoms tend to develop between 5 and 28 days following exposure to the infection and include:

  • Pain during sex.
  • Pain during urination.
  • Unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge, which may be yellow, green or grey and foamy in texture.
  • Itching in the genital area.
  • Lower abdominal pain (this is rare).

How do you get tested for STDs?

STD tests are widely available. Talk to your practice nurse or doctor about having an STD test and they will provide you with all the information you need.

Can STDs result in health problems?

In most cases the symptoms associated with STDs are mild and most can be treated effectively and simply. However, STDs can cause serious health problems if they are left untreated and this is why regular testing is important. STDs can contribute to an increased risk of cervical and other forms of cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease, liver disease, complications during pregnancy and reduced fertility. Some STDs also increase the risk of HIV and AIDS, which are life-threatening conditions with no cure.

How are STDs treated?

The treatment chosen will depend on the kind of STD you have. In many cases a course of antibiotics is an effective treatment. However, conditions such as herpes have no cure but treatments are available to ease symptoms.

In what way do STDs have an effect on pregnant women and their unborn babies?

STDs impact pregnant women in much the same way they do other people. However, STDs can also cause complications during pregnancy and may also increase the risk of premature labour and birth and contamination in the uterus.

Some STDs can pass from pregnant women to their babies. This can happen both before and after the baby is born. Some STDs, including syphilis, contaminate the baby while it is still in the womb via the placenta. Others, such as hepatitis B, Chlamydia and herpes can be transferred during labour when the baby is passing through the birth canal. It is possible for HIV to infect a baby during pregnancy and childbirth.

Effects on the baby can include:

  • Premature birth.
  • Low birth weight.
  • Eye infection.
  • Pneumonia.
  • Blood infection.
  • Acute hepatitis.
  • Delayed development.
  • Shortage of coordination in movement of body.
  • Meningitis.
  • Cirrhosis (scarring of the liver).
  • Chronic hepatitis.
  • Stillbirth.

All women who are planning to conceive are advised to have an STD test before they get pregnant. Regular screening tests during pregnancy can also help to reduce the risk of the complications listed above.

What can pregnant women to do to avert problems from STDs?

Women who are pregnant should be tested for STDs during the early stages of pregnancy. Tests will be carried out to check for the following STDs:

  • Chlamydia.
  • Hepatitis B and C.
  • Gonorrhoea.
  • Syphilis.
  • HIV.

Some doctors also advise females who had a premature birth in the past to be tested for bacterial vaginosis. Women are advised to have these screening tests during the first stage of pregnancy even if they have already had tests in the past.

Many STDs, including gonorrhoea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, syphilis and bacterial vaginosis, can be treated effectively with antibiotics during pregnancy. For some STDs, including genital herpes and HIV, no cure has been discovered but anti-viral medication may help to ease symptoms. Females with active genital herpes at the instance of delivery are advised to have a caesarean section to prevent the newborn baby from developing the infection. A caesarean section may also be recommended for women with HIV. Some pregnant women may be advised to have a vaccination against hepatitis B during pregnancy.

Do STDs affect breastfeeding?

You should talk to your doctor about breastfeeding and the risks of passing on infections through feeding. If you have gonorrhoea or Chlamydia you will be able to continue breastfeeding. For those with syphilis or genital herpes you are able to feed, but only if you cover the sores to prevent the baby from developing the infection; this is because these infections are passed through physical contact and can be harmful to babies. If sores are present in the region of the nipple you are advised not to feed with that breast. You can instead express milk and bottle feed your baby until the sore heals fully. Always ensure that you throw milk away that may have touched the sore during expressing.

If you have an STD and you are breastfeeding, make sure you tell your doctor that you are breastfeeding. They will be able to recommend a treatment that is completely safe for the baby.

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