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Frequently Asked Questions

If neither partner has any STDs, is it possible to get an STD from intercourse or oral sex? If so, how?

If neither partner has a sexually transmitted disease (STD), it is not possible to contract an STD. However, many STDs often display no symptoms, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. Most individuals who are infected with herpes, HPV, and HIV are unaware that they are infected with the virus. This makes it difficult to know for certain whether a person is, in fact, STD-free.

It is also important to remember that if a person with active oral herpes (also known as "fever blisters" or "cold sores") performs oral sex, it is possible for his or her partner to get genital herpes.

If my partner has a history of herpes and genital warts and is not currently having an outbreak of either warts or herpes, can I contract either of the STDs from oral sex?

Herpes: Yes, you can still contract genital herpes. While it may appear that your partner is not having a current outbreak, there are several days throughout the year when a person can be contagious without having symptoms. This phase is known as asymptomatic shedding.

Genital Warts: When warts are not present, the virus is latent (sleeping) in the skin cells; it may or may not be contagious at this time.

In both cases, latex barrier protection during oral sex may help to reduce the risk of STD infection.

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If my partner has a history of herpes and genital warts and is not currently having an outbreak of either warts or herpes, can I contract either of the STDs from vaginal or anal intercourse?

Herpes: As with oral sex, research does show that it is possible to become infected with herpes even if your partner is not currently having an outbreak. If either partner has genital herpes, it is best to abstain from sex when symptoms or signs are present and to use latex condoms at all other times, between outbreaks.

Genital Warts: When warts are gone, the virus is latent (sleeping) in the skin cells; it may or may not be contagious at this time. Be aware that condoms can reduce, but do not eliminate, the risk for transmission to uninfected partners. The types of HPV that cause genital warts are usually spread by direct skin-to-skin contact during vaginal, oral, and anal sex.

Latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of genital herpes and HPV infection, only when the infected areas are covered or protected by the condom.

If my partner is having an outbreak of herpes or genital warts, am I protected from infection when having intercourse if a condom is used?

No, not necessarily! Genital herpes and genital warts (HPV) can occur in genital areas that are not covered or protected by a latex condom. The condom does not cover all of the areas that are vulnerable to herpes and genital warts. Condoms used the right way, from start to finish each time of having sex, may help provide some protection from infection on the skin that is covered by the condom. However, engaging in sexual activity when either partner is having an outbreak of either STD is risky, since the risk of contracting and transmitting either disease when the infections are active is significant, even with a condom.

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Is it possible for a person to contract an STD if she or he is having sex with more than one person at a time but neither of the partners has an STD?

If your partners are free from STD infections, it is not possible to contract an STD. However, many STDs often display no symptoms, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. Most individuals who are infected with herpes, HPV, and HIV are unaware that they are infected with the virus. This makes it difficult to know for certain whether a person is, in fact, STD-free.

Condom use during sexual activity is extremely important. Latex condoms used consistently and correctly are highly effective in preventing transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In addition, correct and consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of many other STDs.

What are the signs and symptoms of chlamydia?

Women:

  • May have no symptoms
  • Pelvic pain
  • Painful or frequent urination
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Bleeding after intercourse

Men:

  • May have no symptoms
  • Painful urination
  • Discharge from the penis

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Is there a window period for testing for STDs?

Some STDs have a window period for testing. For instance, the window period for syphilis is 3 months. The newer blood antibody test for herpes, which is now available, also has a 3-month window period. The window period for hepatitis B is 2 months, but can be up to 6 months for hepatitis A. Less is known about window periods for other STDs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea.

For more information regarding the window period for testing of STDs, call the CDC National STD and AIDS hotline at 1-800-227-8922, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. EST.

Can you get an STD from giving a female oral pleasure?

Yes. If a person is infected with an STD, his or her partner(s) is(are) at risk of contracting that STD, whether during oral, anal, or vaginal sex. It is important to use proper STD prevention protection during all types of sexual activity. When performing oral sex on a female, latex barrier protection should be used to cover the vaginal area. A non-lubed or flavored condom cut down the side or dental dams both offer barrier protection. While this does not ensure 100 percent protection from STD transmission, it greatly reduces the risk. Some individuals find the use of flavored dental dams enhances pleasure for the giver, and a water-based lubricant enhances pleasure for the recipient.

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What are STDs?

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are diseases that are spread through sexual contact. Sexual contact includes vaginal, anal, or oral intercourse, as well as skin-to-skin contact with sexual organs (penis, vagina, anus, mouth). There are more than 25 STDs. The most common STDs in America are: chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV/AIDS, genital warts (caused by a virus called human papilloma virus—HPV), hepatitis B, trichomoniasis, pubic lice, scabies, and herpes.

Can anyone get an STD?

Anyone who is sexually active can get an STD. In fact, one in five Americans is infected with an STD at least once in their lifetime—more than 56 million people.

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What are the symptoms of STDs?

It is important to remember that some STDs cause no symptoms, and when symptoms do occur, they are often not recognized. Most people with STDs have no symptoms—none! So you can be infected and infect someone else without knowing it.

However, there are some common signs to watch for. The symptoms listed below are tricky. They can show up anywhere from 2 days to a couple of months after initial exposure to the disease. Sometimes, symptoms can show up as long as several years after the initial STD infection.

If you have any of these symptoms or think you have been exposed to an STD, contact a healthcare provider immediately.

Specific symptoms might include:

  • Bumps or blisters near the mouth or genitals;
  • Burning or pain during urination or a bowel movement;
  • Flu-like symptoms, including fever, chills, and aches;
  • Swelling in the groin area.

Symptoms specific to women:

  • Unusual pain or discharge from the vagina;
  • Pelvic pain;
  • Unusual vaginal bleeding;
  • Pain during intercourse;
  • Increased severity of menstrual cramps or menstrual abnormalities (like a change in the amount of flow).

Symptoms specific to men:

  • Discharge from the penis;
  • Testicular pain;
  • Pain during urination.

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How are STDs transmitted?

Some STDs are transmitted by body secretions such as semen, blood, and vaginal fluids. Other STDs, such as herpes or HPV (the virus causing genital warts), can be transmitted via skin-to-skin contact.

How are STDs prevented?

For STDs such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis, reducing exposure to body secretions (like semen, blood, and vaginal fluids) is the basis of prevention. Syphilis can also be prevented this way some of the time.

Not having sexual intercourse is 100 percent effective prevention. For sexually active people, using condoms (or other latex barriers) properly 100 percent of the time they have vaginal, anal, and oral sex is a proven way of reducing risk. But this will not prevent bacterial STDs 100 percent of the time.

Other STDs, like genital herpes and HPV/genital warts, are transmitted primarily through skin-to-skin contact from sores or ulcers, or even infected skin or mucosal surfaces and fluids that look normal. Syphilis can also be transmitted this way, as well as through body fluids. These STDs can be passed even when no sores, warts, or other symptoms are present. Often, sores, warts, or lesions are very hard to see. Infected areas can be in genital areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom, but they can also occur in areas that are not covered or protected.

Latex condoms, used correctly all of the time, can reduce the risk of these STDs only when the infected areas are covered or protected by the condom. The effectiveness of condoms in protecting against viral STDs depends on the location of the sore or lesion. If these sores are present on a part of the genital area that is not covered by a condom, STD transmission can occur.

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How are STDs treated?

There are two categories of STDs. Bacterial STDs are caused by bacteria, and viral STDs are caused by viruses. As a result of being caused by different microorganisms, bacterial and viral STDs vary in their treatment.

Bacterial STDs, such as gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia, are cured with antibiotics. However, viral STDs, such as HIV, HPV (genital warts), herpes, and hepatitis (the only STD that can be prevented with a vaccine) have no cure, but their symptoms can be reduced with treatment.

What can STDs do to me in the long run?

Several STDs in addition to HIV/AIDS are quite serious. Diseases like syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia can have long-term consequences, including pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to sterility (losing the ability to get pregnant or get someone pregnant) and chronic pelvic pain. HPV, the virus that causes genital warts, is strongly linked to the development of cervical cancer. STD infection during pregnancy can cause pregnancy complications and, in some cases, lead to illness in the newborn.

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How can I avoid getting an STD?

More and more people are using condoms. Research shows that latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, are highly effective in preventing the transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. In addition, correct and consistent use of latex condoms can reduce the risk of other STDs. One of the problems with condoms is that many people use them incorrectly or only use them some of the time. Remember, no method except abstinence is 100 percent effective.

Can STDs be cured?

Bacterial STDs such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis can be cured with antibiotics. Although viral STDs, such as genital herpes, are lifelong infections, ways of reducing some of their symptoms and frequency of outbreaks have been developed.

But remember, people can't get treated if they don't know they have an STD. That is why people who are (or have been) sexually active should seek STD testing. Protect your health—always seek treatment for an STD.

Don't only people who sleep around get STDs?

STDs are non-discriminatory. Even honest, trustworthy people get STDs, and it only takes one sexual act to get an infection. The real danger is that many young people who carry STDs don't even know they're infected. And because it takes only one high-risk sex act with one infected partner to get an STD, it doesn't really matter how you or your partner define "sleeping around." Since one in five people has an STD, there's plenty of risk for infection.

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Can you get an STD if it's your first time having sex?

Yes, even if it's your first time having sex, you can get an STD. Transmission of an STD only takes one time.

Can you die from an STD?

STDs, when left untreated, can cause serious damage to your sexual health. While you cannot die from the diseases themselves, you can die from related complications. For example, HIV causes AIDS. Individuals can die from a variety of AIDS-related complications. HPV (the virus causing genital warts) is very closely associated with the development of cervical cancer, a terminal illness.

Can condoms prevent STDs?

Condoms can protect against some STDs some of the time. Certain STDs (like HPV, herpes, and syphilis) can occur in areas that are covered or protected by a latex condom. They can also occur in areas that are not covered or protected. For these STDs, latex condoms protect against transmission only when the infection is in a protected or covered area. For other STDs, such as HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis, latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can be effective protection.

But the only 100 percent sure way not to get an STD is not to have sexual intercourse.

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What should I do if I think I have an STD?

If you think you may have an STD or have been sexually exposed to an individual with an STD, see a healthcare provider as soon as possible. You can visit a hospital, physician, or healthcare clinic. The presence of an STD can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to more infections. The sooner you seek medical care, the sooner you can treat the infection and get on the road to health.

How can I talk to my partner about STDs?

Just the idea of talking about STDs can make both men and women nervous, but it's important to remember that talking about prevention and safety are key to both your health and the health of your partner. And no matter how difficult it is to talk about STDs with your partner now, it will be more difficult to talk about STDs if you become infected. Here are some tips:

  • Practice the conversation with a friend, family member, or healthcare provider first;
  • Focus on talking about keeping both you and your partner(s) safe;
  • Offer your partner(s) a choice like using either male or female condoms;
  • Work together, ask them what they would do to reduce STD risk.

If a person has no symptoms, can he or she still transmit an STD?

One of the scariest things about STDs is that people can carry them for years without even knowing it! During that time, even though they show no symptoms, they can transmit STDs to their partners. This is why it is a good decision to wait to have sex or to protect yourself every time you do decide to have sex.

Can I get an STD from a towel or toilet seat?

Most STDs are spread only through direct sexual contact with an infected person. However, pubic lice and scabies are associated with close body contact, not necessarily sexual contact. It's possible to become infected with pubic lice or scabies as a result of contact with infested clothes, sheets, or towels.

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What does it mean to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning? People sometimes refer to themselves as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning. These words don't always mean the same thing to everyone. Sometimes, people don't refer to themselves by these labels, even if their behavior indicates that others might think of them as such.

Men who are gay are sexually attracted to, and fall in love with, other men. Lesbians are women who are sexually attracted to, and fall in love with, other women. These people start having these feelings during childhood. Being gay or lesbian is normal and natural. In fact, 1 out of every 10 teenagers is gay or lesbian. (Advocates for Youth, Youth.org)

People who are sexually attracted to and pursue relationships with both men and women are referred to as bisexual. People sometimes have relationships with men and women throughout their entire lives, while other people decide to have exclusive relationships with one man or woman.

Some people refer to themselves as transgendered. There is a lack of consensus regarding the definition of the word transgendered. The term transgender/ed can be used to refer to any of the following: "cross-living or cross-dressing," "gender dysphoria," "transsexual," "transvestite," "intersexed," and/or "drag queen/king." In a very general sense, transgendered individuals are people who desire to engage in behaviors and activities that are considered to be typical of the opposite gender.

Questioning youth are young people who are uncertain about their sexuality. They may be attracted to individuals of the same sex or opposite sex, both, or neither. Adolescence and the development of sexual feelings can be very confusing. It is normal and okay to question sexuality and sexual identity.

Can you get an STD from performing unprotected oral sex on a male?
Any time you have unprotected sex, there is a risk of contracting an STD. While the risk of contracting an STD from performing unprotected oral sex on a man is lower than the risk of unprotected anal or vaginal sex, there is still a risk. When performing oral sex on a male, the use of a male condom is strongly recommended. While this does not ensure 100 percent protection from STD transmission, it greatly reduces the risk.

Can I catch an STD from using sex toys?
STDs are transmitted in several ways. Most frequently, STDs are transmitted through vaginal fluids and semen. Because of this, when sex toys are used and shared, there is a risk of STD transmission. Although the risk is relatively low, the first documented case of HIV transmission through the use of sex toys was reported in 2003.

How do I tell my doctor I'm worried about STDs?
It is important to be open and honest with your healthcare provider about your STD risks and concerns. The more your provider knows about you, the better able he or she is to give you comprehensive care. Healthcare providers are usually busy and can sometimes make assumptions about your activities and risk. If you are concerned about STDs or other sexual health issues, you should talk to your provider. It is the provider's job to help you, even if he or she seems busy.

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Last updated: June 18, 2003
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