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Reproductive Health Information--Sexually Transmitted Infections

Sexually transmitted diseases are infections of your reproductive organs. Sexually transmitted diseases are very serious. They can make you very, very sick, and can leave you sterile. Some STDs, such as HIV, are deadly, and some, such as herpes , are incurable.
STDs are a common problem. Approximately 12 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases are diagnosed each year in the U.S. Between 25-50% of Americans will contract an STD at some point in their lives. Women account for about half of all sexually transmitted infections that occur each year, and they suffer more frequent and severe long-term consequences than men. Most STDs are more easily transmitted to women than to men. Women are twice as likely as men to get gonorrhea, hepatitis B, and HIV (AIDS). While many people associate getting an STD with being young, postmenopausal women with low estrogen levels are actually at greater risk of these infections invading easily torn vaginal tissue. Women with disabilities have the same rates of sexually transmitted diseases as other women.

However, the good news is that you can protect yourself against STDs. In addition, some bacterial STDs, like gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis, are relatively easy to cure with antibiotics if they are caught early. Viral STDs, like genital herpes, genital warts, hepatitis B, and HIV, cannot be cured; however, the symptoms can be treated and controlled.

Contents

How are STDs transmitted?

When you have genital, anal, or oral contact with a person who has an STD, you can become infected. You only have to have contact with an infected area of another person to become sick yourself. This means you can get an STD without actually having intercourse. If the blood of people with HIV or hepatitis B gets into your body, you can become infected also.

How do you protect yourself from STDs?

The only way to eliminate your risk of an STD is to practice abstinence (not have sex at all) or have sex with an uninfected partner. However, there are many ways you can reduce your risk:

1. Be careful about your partners. Ask your partner about his or her sexual history. If you think you or your partner has a sexually transmitted infection, you need to see a health care provider for testing, counseling, and treatment. Remember that your partner can be infected and NOT LOOK SICK. Furthermore, an infected partner will not always know or disclose that he or she is infected with an STD. You should look closely to see if your partner has any sign of an STD -- a rash, a sore, redness, or discharge in the genital area. If you see anything you're worried about, don't have sex with that person!

2. Use a latex condom every time you have sexual contact. While they are not 100% effective, condoms greatly reduce your risk. A 1993 study showed that using condoms every time prevented HIV transmission for all but two out of 171 women with male partners who had HIV. However, eight out of 55 women became infected when their partners did not use a condom every time.

3. Use a foam, cream, or jelly with spermicide. These chemicals kill most STD organisms. Remember not to use a petroleum based lubricant like Vaseline or baby oil with a latex condom. It will cause the condom to dissolve!

4. Don't share vibrators or other sex toys.

5. Be careful about the alcohol or drugs you take. Alcohol and drugs are often factors when people have risky sex because they weaken good judgment and self-control. Don't make a mistake that could kill you because of alcohol and drugs.

6. Get a Hepatitis B immunization. The vaccine is safe and effective. Hepatitis B is a serious and sometimes fatal sexually transmitted disease.

What are the symptoms of an STD?

A woman with disabilities who has a damaging STD may have no symptoms at all. Thus, if you have engaged in unprotected sex and think you might have an STD, you should go to a health care provider to be tested.

If you have a spinal cord injury and you get an STD, you may also have symptoms and signs of autonomic dysreflexia. If you are having these kinds of problems and think you may have an STD, always tell your health care provider. An STD can cause the following symptoms in the genital area. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should see your health care provider right away.

  • abnormal or foul smelling vaginal discharge
  • blisters, growths, or other sores
  • itching, burning, pain
  • menstrual irregularities
  • painful intercourse
  • rashes
  • swelling

An STD may also cause symptoms that do not show up in the genital area, but affect your whole body. If any of the following symptoms persist, you should see your health care provider. These symptoms need to be treated, regardless of whether or not they are due to an STD.

  • abdominal pain
  • aching joints
  • appetite loss
  • bowel problems
  • chills
  • coating of the mouth, throat, or vagina
  • cough
  • diarrhea
  • discolored skin
  • fatigue, feeling run down
  • fever
  • general weakness
  • growths
  • hair loss
  • hearing loss
  • headache
  • yellow skin
  • mental disorder
  • muscular pain
  • nausea
  • night sweats
  • sore throat
  • swollen glands
  • vision loss
  • vomiting
  • weight loss that is constant, rapid or unexplained

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Written and Designed by Stephanie Pendergrass, Carol Howland, and Margaret Nosek Ph.D.
Copyright 2000 Center for Research on Women with Disabilities

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