Sounding the Alarm on Sexually Transmitted Diseases

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With cases of sexually transmitted diseases at record highs in the United States, it’s wise to stay vigilant to help protect yourself, says Dr. Keith Lamy, at Austin family practice medicine clinic.

The Centers for Disease Control sounded the alarm last year, saying such diseases are a growing threat that is outpacing the ability to respond. While young people are most often afflicted with chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, older adults are also experiencing increasing numbers of cases. The rise is troubling because not so many years ago, gonorrhea rates were at historic lows and syphilis was nearly eliminated.

Antibiotics can cure all these infections, but if they are not treated they can sometimes seriously harm your health. Another concern is that gonorrhea has been developing resistance to antibiotics and doctors are slowly running out of treatment options.

Most of the 2 million cases reported in 2016 were of chlamydia, which infects both men and women. In women, an infection can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, which can permanently damage the reproductive system and make it difficult or impossible to get pregnant. Men usually don’t have health problems from chlamydia. In some cases, however, the infection can spread to the tube that carries sperm from the testicles, causing pain. Detecting chlamydia can be difficult because it often doesn’t cause symptoms. Men and women who do have symptoms may notice a burning sensation when urinating or a discharge from the penis or vagina.

You can get chlamydia by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who has the infection. Although not having sex is the only sure way to avoid getting chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases, using condoms properly can be extremely effective. Because of the risks associated with infection, Dr. Lamy recommends annual chlamydia screening for sexually active women to reduce the incidence of pelvic inflammatory disease. Gay and bisexual men, as well as men with multiple sexual partners, should also get tested.

After chlamydia, gonorrhea is the second most common of diseases that must be reported in the United States, according to the CDC. Both men and women can get gonorrhea, and young, sexually active people are most often infected. The infections may be in the genitals, rectum, and throat. In women, gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease and pregnant women can pass on infections from both gonorrhea and chlamydia to their babies during delivery.

Men and women often experience no symptoms, but those who do may notice a burning sensation when they urinate or unusual discharges from the penis or vagina. Men may also have swollen testicles and women may notice vaginal bleeding between periods.

Should you be screened for gonorrhea? A panel of experts known as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force neither endorses nor opposes it for men, saying there’s not enough evidence to assess the benefits and harm. But it recommends screening for sexually active women age 24 years and younger, and in older women at increased risk for infection.

Cases of syphilis have also been increasing, with men most often infected. Look for sores around your mouth or in your genital area. You may develop a rash on the hands or feet, and experience joint pain, hair loss, vision loss, or fever. Treatment of syphilis is easy, requiring an injection of penicillin. Left untreated, however, syphilis may eventually result in serious problems, such as dementia, blindness, heart complications, and other damage to organs.

Another infection, human papillomavirus (HPV), is considered the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, according to the CDC. Dozens of virus types have been identified, and some of those can cause cancers and genital warts. Anyone who is sexually active can get HPV, and you can also develop symptoms a long time after you have sex with someone who is infected.
HPV often does not cause any problems and goes away without the need for treatment. But because of the risk of cancer and other problems from HPV, a vaccine called Gardasil is available to help prevent infection and the harm it may cause. Gardasil can be given as a routine vaccination for girls and boys age 11 or 12; and to protect others, including people with compromised immune systems, and gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men, through age 26.

While no easy test exists for HPV in men, there is testing to detect HPV in a woman’s cervix. HPV testing can easily be added to a Pap smear at the time of collection and is the best way to detect early cervical cancers in women age 30 and older.

You can also get other diseases through sexual contact, including certain kinds of hepatitis and genital herpes. Genital herpes is so common that at least one out of every six people age 14 to 49 years have the disease, according to the CDC.

Herpes can be spread through vaginal, anal, or oral sex; as well as other contact, including with saliva, genital secretions, and cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth. You should visit a doctor if you or your partner notice signs of an outbreak, including herpes sores near the genitals, rectum, or mouth. Initially, you may also have symptoms such as fever, body aches, or swollen glands.
But genital herpes often causes no symptoms, and most who have it do not even know it. Herpes is a risk for pregnant women because it can pass from you to your unborn child before birth or to your infant during delivery. You can get testing to determine if you have the infection. While no cure exists for herpes, there are medicines to prevent or shorten your outbreaks.

If you have any concerns about these diseases, you can schedule a visit with Dr. Lamy at Austin family practice medicine clinic. He can answer questions and discuss your options for individual screening.

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