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The ABCs of STDs

This is a crash course on Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs).
Updated: December 1, 2022

In this article, you will find:

What Are Sexually Transmitted Diseases?
STDs, Part 2
STDs, Part 3

What Are Sexually Transmitted Diseases?

The ABCs of STDs

"We should make the world safe for our children, but not our children's children, because I don't think our children should be having sex."

Do you agree with Jack Handey's "Deep Thought"? Let reality intrude for a moment and face the fact that many of our teenagers are having sex at a younger age than ever before and with more partners.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly three out of four high school seniors have sexual intercourse by the time they graduate.

In the United States, an estimated 15.3 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) occur each year, at least one-quarter of them among teenagers. Studies have shown that teenagers are the largest population affected by STDs; approximately two-thirds of people who acquire STDs in the United States are younger than 25. Young adults aged 15 to 19, both male and female, have the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea, the two most common sexually transmitted diseases.

Yet, it's not shocking that teens regard the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases the same way they see the dangers of tobacco: "It won't happen to me, so let's change the subject." Many people think that someone who contracts a sexually transmitted disease (STD) is "dirty" or promiscuous, but that's totally wrong.

Any teenager or adult who is sexually active can catch a disease like herpes. And while deadly HIV and AIDS have understandably garnered the most headlines over the past 10 years, teens are more vulnerable to contracting genital herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and human papillomavirus (HPV), from a sexual encounter.

It's vital that you and your teen are aware of the risks of sex. Click on the links below to learn more about a specific STD, then print the whole article and share it with your son or daughter.

Some Scary Statistics

  • Experts now warn that a chilling 75 percent of Americans between the ages of 15 and 49 (yes, that includes many parents of teens, folks) may be infected with human papillomavirus, or HPV. There are close to 100 strains of the virus, and about one-third are transmitted by sexual contact.
  • HPV has been linked to genital warts for many years, but it's only recently been identified as the precursor of cervical cancer. And that old stand-by, condom use, does nothing to protect against the transmission of the virus.
  • Despite the emphasis on "safe sex" to prevent AIDS, genital herpes has increased five-fold since the 1970s among white teenagers, and doubled among whites in their 20's, reports the CDC. About 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 12 has the disease. Most frightening is that teens are in the greatest risk group -- and they usually don't know they have contracted herpes!
  • A study at the University of California, San Francisco, of gay and bisexual men revealed that almost 10 percent of them had contracted AIDS through oral sex. Since this has become the activity of "choice" by many younger teens who assumed it was risk-free, the message must be clear that there is no such thing as "safe sex."

    AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is caused by HIV, a virus that attacks the body's immune system and results in fatal infections and cancers. Experts estimate that every hour, at least one American becomes infected with HIV. There is no cure for AIDS.

    In the United States:

    • over 640,000 cases of AIDS were reported to the CDC by the end of 1997.
    • Of those cases, 60 percent of patients had died by then.
    • As of December 1998, an estimated 33.4 million people worldwide were living with HIV/AIDS.
    • The cumulative AIDS-related deaths worldwide as of December 1997 numbered approximately 13.9 million.
    • At the end of 1999, the CDC said there were over 733,000 people with AIDS.
    • Of those cases, 430,441 people died.

    What to look for:
    It can take up to 10 years for symptoms of (full-blown) AIDS to develop. Symptoms include: unexplained weight loss, fevers, headaches, drenching night sweats, fatigue, severe diarrhea, shortness of breath, and difficulty swallowing. The symptoms tend to last for weeks or months at a time and do not go away without treatment.

    How can you tell?
    The only way to tell if you have been infected with HIV is by taking an HIV blood test. The test can be performed at an AIDS testing site, a doctor's office, or a clinic. HIV testing includes pretest counseling and an explanation of the benefits of testing. You may want to seek anonymous testing. When you undergo anonymous testing, you're identified only by number, and you're the only one who finds out the test results. The CDC National AIDS Hotline, 1-800-342-AIDS, can help you find a test site in your area. Home test kits are available but with home kits, there's no post-test counseling if the results come back positive.

    What is the treatment?
    There is no cure for HIV infection or AIDS. Treatment is complex but is shown to prolong life. Health care providers try to help prevent other infections such as pneumonia.

    Abstinence is the only way to avoid the sexual transmission of AIDS. HIV is spread in two main ways: through unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected person, or through sharing drug needles with an infected person. Women infected with HIV can pass the virus to their babies during pregnancy or birth or through breast milk. Latex condoms have been shown to prevent HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases. Personal items such as razors and toothbrushes also may be blood-contaminated, and shouldn't be shared.

    It's important to know that HIV is not passed by everyday social contact. Touching, hugging, and shaking hands with an infected person is safe. It's a myth that you can get HIV by donating blood. A new needle is used for every donor, and you do not come into contact with anyone else's blood.

    Donated blood is now always screened for HIV, so the risk of getting it from a blood transfusion in the U.S. is extremely low. Kissing an infected person on the cheek or with dry lips is not a known risk. No cases of AIDS or of HIV infection due to kissing have ever been reported.

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