Each year, approximately 19 million Americans contract a sexually transmitted disease (STD). STDs are infections spread from one person to another during sexual activity. Chlamydia and gonorrhea are the most commonly reported STDs.
There are an estimated 2.8 million new cases of chlamydia and 700,000 cases of gonorrhea in the US each year. Both infections are most common in young women and both pose a serious risk to women’s reproductive health. If left untreated, gonorrhea and chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and other parts of the pelvis. PID may cause chills, fever, pelvic pain, infertility, and ectopic pregnancy.
Many women may never know they have an STD—the symptoms can be vague. Within two days to three weeks of infection, women may experience a yellow vaginal discharge; painful or frequent urination; vaginal burning or itching; redness, swelling, or soreness on the outside of the vagina (vulva); pain in the pelvis or abdomen during sex; abnormal vaginal bleeding; and rectal bleeding, discharge, or pain. Many women and men will experience no symptoms at all.
ACOG and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that all sexually active women age 25 and younger be regularly screened for chlamydia and gonorrhea. Women over 26 should be screened for chlamydia and gonorrhea annually if they have multiple sexual partners or if their partner has multiple sexual contacts. Despite these recommendations, the CDC recently reported that only 38% of young sexually active women are screened for chlamydia and that more than 20% who test positive become reinfected within six months.
ACOG urges ob-gyns to talk to their patients about STDs and screen those at high risk of infection. Chlamydia and gonorrhea can be treated with antibiotics. To lower the risk of reinfection, ACOG suggests that ob-gyns write a prescription both for their patient and her sexual partner, who may be unlikely or unable to get treatment on his or her own. It is important that both partners are treated and take all of their medicine before resuming sexual activity.
Using a male or female condom correctly every time you have sex can also help reduce transmission of STDs. Practice abstinence or monogamy, or limit your number of sexual partners. And be up front: it’s better to have a frank conversation with your partner about your sexual histories beforehand than to be unpleasantly surprised down the road.
April is STD Awareness Month. For more information, check out the CDC’s STD Awareness Month page.
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