Learn the Most Common STDs — And How to Protect Yourself

Learn the Most Common STDs — And How to Protect Yourself

Learn the Most Common STDs — And How to Protect Yourself

If you’ve recently had sex, or you’re deciding whether to have sex, you’ve likely thought about sexually transmitted diseases. How common are they? What is the risk to women, and young people in particular? What’s the best way to prevent infection?

What Are the Most Common STDs?

The Centers for Disease Control keeps annual records on the so-called “Big 3” STDs — chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis.

Chlamydia was the most commonly reported STD in 2014, with more than 1.4 million cases. More than 350,000 cases of gonorrhea were reported, along with almost 20,000 cases of syphilis.

For other STDs — such as human papillomavirus, herpes simplex virus, and trichomoniasis — the CDC uses much less detailed data collection methods and much less frequent reporting.

STD Estimated U.S. Prevalence Year of Most Recent Data
Chlamydia 1,441,789 cases reported 2014
Gonorrhea 350,062 cases reported 2014
Syphilis – Primary & Secondary 19,999 cases reported 2014
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) 5.1% of Women ages 14-19 2007-2010
Herpes Simplex Virus 15.5% of persons ages 15-49 2007-2010
Trichomoniasis 3.1% among initial physician visits 2001-2004

Sources: (a) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2014. Accessed from http://www.cdc.gov/std/stats14/surv-2014-print.pdf. (b) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Accessed from http://www.cdc.gov/std/stats13/other.htm.

Special Concerns for Women

One of the most dangerous facts about STDs is that most cases are asymptomatic in their earliest stages — for example, approximately 80 to 90% of chlamydial infections and 80% of gonorrheal infections show no symptoms. This is very troubling because the longer an STD goes undetected, the more likely it is to cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women. PID can lead to a number of reproductive disorders:

  • Ectopic pregnancy
  • Tubal factor infertility
  • Tubal scarring
  • Chronic pelvic pain

Once you’ve had sex, regular STD screenings are essential so that you can begin treatment right away if you test positive. Early treatment can sometimes clear up the infection and prevent permanent damage.

Special Concerns for Young People

Did you know that HALF of STD infections occur in persons age 15 to 24? Young women are particularly vulnerable, with about 25% of sexually active adolescent women having an STD of some kind. Young people face heavier cultural pressure from peers and the media to engage in risky sexual behaviors, compared to middle aged and older adults.

Prevalence of Chlamydia

Women contract chlamydia at twice the rate of men. The rate is also highest among adolescents and young adults, with young women once again being at special risk.

Gender Age Cases per 100,000 Persons
Women 15-19 2,941.0
Women 20-24 3,651.1
Men 15-19 718.3
Men 20-24 1,368.3

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2014. Accessed from http://www.cdc.gov/std/stats14/surv-2014-print.pdf.

Prevalence of Gonorrhea

The overall rate among men was 120.1 cases per 100,000 in 2014, compared with 101.3 cases per 100,000 women. When we look at age patterns, once again we see that teens and young adults are particularly hard hit — with women 15-24 having a higher infection rate than men of the same age range.

Gender Age Cases per 100,000 Persons
Women 15-19 430.5
Women 20-24 533.7
Men 15-19 221.1
Men 20-24 485.6

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2014. Accessed from http://www.cdc.gov/std/stats14/surv-2014-print.pdf.

Another emerging concern is the rapid growth of drug resistant strains of gonorrhea. Because of this, the CDC now recommends a stronger regimen of two different antibiotics instead of just one.

Prevalence of Syphilis

Men also have a higher rate of syphilis, with 11.7 cases reported for every 100,000 men, compared to 1.1 cases per 100,000 women.

Even though syphilis is less common in women than other STDs, it can be just as dangerous when it does occur. Both men and women with syphilis are at increased risk of contracting HIV.

Furthermore, if a woman acquires syphilis within the 4 years prior to conception, it infects her fetus 80% of the time. This can lead to a dangerous condition called congenital syphilis, which means the baby is born suffering the consequences of the infection. Untreated syphilis during pregnancy can cause fetal death. Congenital syphilis appears in about 11.6 out of every 100,000 live births in the United States.

Prevalence of “Other” STDs

The National Health and Nutrition Examination (NHNE) Survey looked at human papillomavirus (HPV) infections in women ages 14 to 19 between the years 2007 and 2010. This research found an estimated prevalence of about 5.1%. HPV accounts for about 70% of cervical cancers reported worldwide and about 90% of genital warts.

As for herpes simplex virus (HSV), data on this disease was also reported in the NHNE Survey of 2007 to 2010. During this time frame, HSV had an estimated prevalence of 15.5% among persons ages 15 to 49. The CDC projects that as many as 90% of HSV cases go undiagnosed, but when symptoms do appear, they typically include recurrent, painful genital and/or anal lesions.

HSV can be passed from mother to child. The most recent information, reported in 2006, found 9.6 cases of HSV for every 100,000 live births in the United States. HSV during pregnancy can result in significant risk of morbidity and mortality for mother and baby.

Information on trichomoniasis was limited to initial physician visits reported in the National Disease and Therapeutic Index (NDTI) between 2001 and 2004. According to this report, about 3.1% of patients tested positive. Although less commonly discussed, this STD can cause significant harm to women and their unborn babies, with complications including preterm birth and vaginitis.

Important Myths About Your STD Risk

#1 All cases of STDs are reported to the CDC.

While publicly available data gives us a snapshot, the actual prevalence of STDs is vastly underreported. There are several contributing factors to this:

  • Because STDs are asymptomatic at first, most infected persons do not even know they have them.
  • Second, the CDC only reports diagnosed cases identified through their own data gathering methods. For every case reported, many more go unidentified.
  • Third, many people with STDs may simply fail to disclose that they are infected.

Even in its own reporting, the CDC admits that its information is flawed. For the “Big 3” STDs of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, the agency speculates that the actual prevalence could be twice as high as what is published. For the so-called “other” STDs like HPV, HSV, and trichomoniasis, the currently available information is even more incomplete and is anywhere from 5 to 15 years old.

This means that you are taking a big risk every time you have sex – unless you can verify that the person you’re with has a current negative STD test result, which can be difficult to do.

#2 You can’t get an STD if you use a condom.

Numerous studies have confirmed that condoms are very ineffective at preventing STD infection. Even when used according to manufacturer’s instructions, they do not protect against all skin-to-skin contact that could result in STD transmission.

Furthermore, condoms often tear during sexual intercourse, which eliminates any small protective benefit they may have offered to begin with.

#3 You can only get an STD from vaginal intercourse.

One reason condoms are ineffective is that many people mistakenly believe that only vaginal intercourse causes STD infections.

However, any part of your body that is exposed to an STD can become infected — especially in or near your anus, mouth, or throat. It is impossible to keep all of these areas securely covered during most sexual encounters.

So even if a man’s penis is completely protected by an undamaged condom, if he’s infected with an STD, you could still be at risk from any oral or anal contact that occurs.

How to Protect Yourself — And Those You Love

Given what we know about the limited effectiveness of condoms and the prevalence of STDs, there are only two effective methods of protecting yourself from infection.

  1. Abstain from all skin-to-skin sexual contact – especially vaginal, anal, and oral.
  2. Only engage in skin-to-skin sexual contact once you are legally married to an uninfected opposite-sex spouse.

Young people — and young women in particular — face tremendous pressure from peers, potential boyfriends, and popular culture, to engage in risky sexual behaviors before they are ready and without being fully informed about the risk of STDs. This is why young women between 15 and 24 are among the hardest hit segments of the U.S. population when it comes to STD infections.

If you’d like to learn more about STDs, pregnancy, or other sexual health issues, contact us at ACPC at any time. We’ll answer all your questions and provide scientifically accurate information, along with free STD testing. We’re here to empower you with the information — and confidence — you need to make sound decisions for your health — and that of your future spouse and children.