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- Safe sex is an important part of protecting your reproductive health
- It’s important to know what infections you can catch and how to treat them
- INSIDER consulted experts on the most common infections to look out for
Update: A previous version of this article contained quotes from an expert whose credentials are now in question. We have reached out to him for confirmation of those credentials and have not heard back. You can read Gizmodo’s investigation here, and his response here. INSIDER has updated this article as of 3/1/19.
Practicing safe sex is an important part of protecting your reproductive health and warding against unpleasant infections. Though most people are aware that you can contract STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea through sex, there are actually several more infections that can be tied to sexual activity.
Chlamydia is a very common infection, but it can have serious consequences.
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Chlamydia is the most commonly diagnosed STI in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there about 1.7 million new cases each year.
Symptoms of chlamydia include abnormal vaginal discharge and the sensation of itching or burning. However, some people don’t experience any symptoms at all.
Pregnant women can also pass chlamydia to their infants during delivery, which can lead to blindness and pneumonia in the child.
HPV is also very common and can lead to cancer.
The human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cancer in all sexes.
According to the CDC, there are over 40 distinct types of HPV. HPV types 16 and 18 are responsible for about 66% of cervical cancers in the US, while HPV types 6 and 11 accounts for approximately 90% of genital warts. Though many people infected with HPV don’t exhibit any symptoms, the virus often leads to crusty, elevated warts on the skin of the penis, vagina, or anus.
The majority of sexually active people are actually carriers of the virus, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
This is why it’s important that people with a cervix get an annual Pap smear to detect abnormal cells, which can indicate an elevated risk of developing cervical cancer in the future.
Even if you don’t have a cervix, you may want to consider getting an HPV vaccine as it can also cause various cancers in people of all genders.
Gonorrhoea can cause burning discharge and infertility.
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Gonorrhea is the second most common STI in the US. It’s also a major cause of PID, which can lead to infertility and chronic pelvic pain. The most common symptom is mucosal inflammation of the cervix or the penis, which leads to clear discharge. Most people also report burning during sex or burning discharge coming out of the tip of the penis.
The CDC reported that in 2017, 50% of reported gonorrhea cases in the US occurred in just 70 counties. Rates of infection are highest among people 15 to 29 years of age.
Syphilis is a potentially lethal infection that can go unnoticed for decades
Syphilis is an STI that can take years to cause symptoms but is potentially fatal.
According to the National Health Service (NHS) the early symptoms of syphilis usually show up around two or three weeks after infection. These usually include one or several painless genital ulcers.
As the infection progresses, an individual might notice a blotchy red rash, white patches in the mouth, or flu-like symptoms. Eventually, untreated syphilis can cause meningitis, stroke, dementia, heart problems, and a loss of the bridge of the nose.
Unfortunately, untreated syphilis in pregnant people acquired during the four years before delivery can lead to infection of the fetus in up to 80% of cases, according to the CDC. It may also result in the death of the infant in up to 40% of cases.
Trichomoniasis is caused by a parasite and can take up to a month to cause symptoms.
Trichomoniasis is caused by a microscopic parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. It can cause thin, strong-smelling vaginal discharge, inflammation around the vagina, itchy thighs, and pain while passing urine.
A physical examination of the vagina of someone with trichomoniasis might uncover inflammation of the cervix and a yellow covering on the cervix. Symptoms are more difficult to spot in men, though an examination might reveal soreness or discharge around the tip of the penis. If left untreated, this STI can result in infertility, prostate cancer, and cervical cancer.
According to the NHS, the parasite is usually spread by having unprotected sex or sharing sex toys. However, you can’t catch trichomoniasis through kissing, sharing food, oral sex, or anal sex.
Vaginitis doesn’t always occur because of sex, but having unprotected sex can make you predisposed to it.
Vaginitis is an inflammation of the vagina that can cause redness, itching, swelling, or pain. According to Mayo Clinic, bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, and trichomoniasis are actually all types of vaginitis.
Vaginitis can occur due to changes in the normal pH of the vagina that disrupt the typical balance of vaginal bacteria. Symptoms can include vaginal discharge, odor, or general discomfort.
The Mayo Clinic also cautioned that vaginitis can also crop up after a person experiences falling estrogen levels related to menopause.
Nongonococcal urethritis is an infection that can be caused by other STIs.
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Nongonococcal urethritis is an inflammation of the urethra. It’s called “nongonococcal” because it’s not caused by a gonorrhea infection. According to the American Sexual Health Association, nongonococcal urethritis is most often caused by chlamydia. The route of exposure is usually sexual, but nongonococcal urethritis can also be caused injury during the placement of a catheter or squeezing of the urethra.
The most common symptom is burning on urination or clear discharge. A small number of people might also experience reactive arthritis, which is pain in the joints of the legs caused by a reaction to the infection.