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What Causes Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)?

You can get an STD from oral, vaginal, or anal sex.
STD causes
PHOTO: UNSPLASH/Dainis Graveris

Sexually transmitted diseases are caused by three things: bacteria, parasites, and viruses. And the most common way to contract an STD is through unprotected sexual contact or having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone who's infected. 

In June 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that there are more than one million new cases of curable sexually transmitted infectionschlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, and syphilisamong 15- to 49-year-olds every single day. If you do the math, that's around 376 million cases in a year. But one of the tricky things about sexually transmitted diseases is that rarely are symptoms obvious for women. According to dermatologist Dr. Gilbert Yang, "If a male gets an STI, okay, we'll treat. We'll do the tests and treatable na. But for women, number one, they don't have symptoms. [For example], they don't have discharge for gonorrhea. They have silent infections so I tell them let's confirm by doing a test."


Think about the first time you learned about STDs in school. There's a good chance it was covered in a single class, and it involved your teacher flashing really gross photos of STDs—which is a really good way to traumatize a teen but is an ineffective tool to educate. For one thing, because our reproductive organ is internal, most STD symptoms aren't *that* visible to women. So if you don't see it, you may not think you have it. But more importantly, these horrifying images of STDs perpetuate the stigma of having an infection, which instills shame in people and keeps them from getting tested regularly. The truth is, some STDs can be cured by a round of antibiotics, and even the ones that aren't curable won't keep you from having a fulfilling life. Here's what you need to know. 

A man and a woman being intimate in bed
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STD Causes: Bacteria

STDs caused by bacteria include chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. These are the ones that can be cured with antibiotics. 


Chlamydia is an infection in your genital tract, but in some cases, it can also infect the eyes and throat. It can be hard to detect in the early stage because not a lot of people have visible symptoms. Chlamydia can be carried in pre-cum, semen (cum), and vaginal fluids. Common symptoms in women include abnormal vaginal discharge, pain while peeing, pain during sex, and bleeding between periods. 


"The clap" or "the drip" also shows little to no symptoms early on. If you have sex with someone who has gonorrhea, it takes around 10 days for symptoms to appear. It has similar symptoms to chlamydia (painful burn while peeing, bleeding between periods, abnormal heavy bleeding during menstruation) but also bowel movements that hurt, an intense itch in the anal area, and cloudy or bloody discharge. 



This particular STD affects your genitals, skin, and mucuous membranes. In the early stage, sores (chancres) can appear on your genitals, lips, and tongue; people mistake a chancre for a pimple, which can be dangerous because chancres are highly contagious. Apart from these sores, people with syphilis can also have symptoms like reddish or brown rashes, enlarged lymph nodes, aching, fatigue, and a fever. 

STD Causes: Virus

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

Human papillomavirus or more commonly referred to as HPV has many strains; some of these strains can lead to cancer. HPV can be passed to another person through sexual or skin-to-skin contact. The most common symptom is the presence of warts in the mouth or throat or on the genitals. 

Genital herpes

Herpes has two common strains, HSV-1 and HSV-2, both of which can be contracted sexually. HSV-1 causes oral herpes (this when cold sores around the mouth appear), but when someone infected performs oral sex, it can transfer it to that person, and then it becomes genital herpes. HSV-2, on the other hand, causes genital herpes. The number one symptom? Blistery sores in the genitals. 



Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV is a virus that damages the immune system. Left untreated, it can lead to AIDS. The early symptoms of HIV is similar to those of the flu: headache, sore throat, fever, chills, nausea, and rashes. Eventually, these disappear, and symptoms may not occur again until many years later. 

STD Causes: Parasite


This STD isn't as well-known as the previous ones mentioned, but trichomoniasis is caused by a parasite. Trich is caused by a tiny protozoan organism that can be passed through genital contact. Unfortunately, only around 30 percent of people with trich show symptoms, so it can be hard to figure out if you have it. Symptoms can include discharge, burning or itching around the vagina, frequent urination, and pain while peeing or having sex.