Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infectious diseases that are spread
through sexual contact. STDs are among the most common infectious diseases in
the world today. There are over 20 types, affecting more than 13 million men and
women in the United States alone each year, and the incidence is on the rise.
Some of the most common STDs include chlamydial infection, genital herpes,
genital warts, gonorrhea, HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, the microorganism
that causes AIDS), and syphilis.
Signs and Symptoms
STDs often occur without symptoms, particularly in women. However, STDs may
be accompanied by the following signs and symptoms:
Pustules (pus-containing blisters)
Genital lesions including ulcers, blisters, rashes, and warts; ulcers
may be painful
Rectal infection and inflammation of the rectum
Swollen lymph glands in the
What Causes It?
STDs are caused by microbial agents and spread primarily (but not
exclusively) through sexual contact. Some STDs can also be passed from a mother
to her baby during delivery and through breastfeeding while infected. Others may
be passed by sharing infected needles. Some of the most common STDs and the
microorganisms that cause them are listed below.
AIDS—human immunodeficiency virus
Genital herpes—herpes simplex virus
Genital warts—human papillomavirus
In addition, there are certain infections classified as STDs that may be
sexually transmitted but often are not. Candidal (yeast) infections and
Gardnerella (an organism that frequently lives in the vagina) are
examples that may cause vaginal inflammation.
Who's Most At Risk?
People with the following conditions or characteristics are at risk for
Having a sexual partner with an STD; again, in many cases, an STD may
be present without symptoms
Having many sexual partners, or a partner who has many sexual partners
Having sex without the use of condoms or other protective
Having one STD increases the likelihood of contracting
Adolescents are at highest risk for acquiring an STD for the first
Living under stress from poverty, poor nutrition, or poor or absent
Practicing anal intercourse increases risk for HIV, gonorrhea, and
Having a weakened immune system
Using intravenous drugs
Using spermicidal foams and jellies does not protect against STDs and
may, in some cases, even promote contraction of certain STDs, including
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Your healthcare provider will do an examination and check for physical signs.
Blood tests and other diagnostic procedures including cultures from the
genitalia can reveal the microbial agent responsible for the STD and allow the
provider to select the right therapy.
There are many ways in which people at risk can reduce the likelihood of
contracting or spreading STDs:
Have a mutually monogamous sexual relationship with an uninfected
Correctly and consistently use a male or female condom for every act
of oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse
Use clean needles if injecting intravenous drugs
Prevent and control other STDs
Have regular checkups for STDs even if you have no symptoms,
especially if you are having sex with a new partner or with multiple
Learn the common symptoms of STDs and seek medical help immediately if
you develop any symptoms
Anyone diagnosed with an STD should be treated, avoid sexual activity while
being treated, notify all recent sexual partners, complete the course of any
medications prescribed, and take a follow-up test.
STDs are generally treated with antibiotics. See the monograph on HIV and
AIDS for details on how that condition is treated.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
There are some possible applications of CAM therapies in the case of
STDs—as adjunctive treatment, as prevention, to improve
symptoms, or to reduce certain complications, such as arthritis from gonorrhea.
In general, much of the research regarding CAM therapies for STDs is too
preliminary to draw conclusions, but the results are intriguing. The
descriptions that follow may give some sense of the direction in which research
may go to evaluate CAM modalities for STDs. It is important to remember that
none of these approaches offers a cure or an isolated treatment option. They
cannot and should not be used instead of conventional care. Even during
treatment, STDs remain highly contagious and the necessary precautions to
prevent transmission to sexual partners must be taken (see section on
Experimental studies have shown that ascorbic acid (vitamin C), a powerful
antioxidant, may help prevent cellular damage from chlamydia. Ascorbic acid and
other antioxidant nutrients known for their ability to rid the body of free
radicals (harmful by-products of your cells' metabolism) may prove useful in
treating chlamydia when used along with standard antibiotics.
Some healthcare providers recommend Lactobacillus acidophilus in
either food or supplement form to help restore normal organisms in the body in
the case of Candida (yeast) infections or after antibiotic use.
Propoli is rich in flavonoids, and has antimicrobial and anesthetic
properties. A multicenter study compared a Canadian propolis ointment, the drug
acyclovir, and placebo ointments in 90 patients with recurring chronic genital
herpes lesions. Treatment began in the blister phase of infection. Patients were
checked periodically and did not know which treatment they were receiving.
Propolis was found to be significantly more effective than both acyclovir and
placebo in clearing up lesions and shortening the time to heal.
Case reports of four patients treated with an oral herbal formula called WTTC
(Wisteria floribunda, Terminalia chebulae, Trapa natans, and Coicis
semen), combined with two other herbs, showed complete resolution of both
oral herpes (cold sores around the mouth) and genital herpes within 3 to 7 days.
The study's authors suggest the formula may help reduce recurrence of HSV and
pain, and speed recovery. However, it is too early to draw definitive
conclusions about the value of this particular remedy.
The following herbs, often used in clinical practice for STDs, have not yet
been researched adequately for effectiveness by scientific studies: licorice
root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) for
HSV; thuja (Thuja occidentalis) for HPV; and garlic (Allium
sativum) and essential oils of oregano (Oreganum vulgare), lavender
(Lavandula angustifolia), and tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)
for HPV and Candida viruses. For herbal treatment of STDs, see a licensed
naturopathic doctor or other specialist trained and certified in the use of
Homeopaths use various homeopathic remedies to treat STDs. However, so far no
scientific studies have evaluated homeopathy for this purpose. An experienced
homeopath would consider each individual case and may recommend treatments to
address both the underlying constitution and the specific symptoms of the
Four hundred five men with urethritis caused by organisms other than
gonorrhea, such as Chlamydia trachomatis, were treated with 1 hour of
daily acupuncture over a 22-month period. Patients were asked to abstain from
all sexual activity during treatment and for 1 month after treatment ended. The
patients' sexual partners were treated as well. The results showed the treatment
was extremely effective in 64% of cases, which were considered cured (the men's
symptoms cleared and tests showed no sign of infection). It was at least
somewhat effective in about 86% of the men.
Several successful cases of treating herpes simplex with acupuncture have
been reported. For example, researchers treated two patients with oral herpes
and three with genital herpes using acupuncture points generally used for skin
conditions. One to four sessions cleared active, recurring infections in this
group of patients. It is too early to know the significance of these results,
but they suggest that acupuncture may help to heal herpes lesions, lengthen the
period of remission, and reduce recurrences of the infection.
One hundred sixteen patients with gonoccocal arthritis were treated with a
combination of acupuncture, garlic moxibustion (burning of the herb over the
skin), pricking blood, cupping (affecting blood flow by placing suction cups on
the skin), and removing fluid from the joints. A course of treatment consisted
of 10 days of treatment with a 2- to 3-day interval between courses. Of the 116
patients, 64% were considered cured after 1 to 3 courses of treatment (symptoms
cleared, function returned to normal, and joint fluid tested negative). Overall,
at least some improvement was shown in about 85% of the patients.
When diagnosed and treated early, many STDs can be treated effectively.
However, there are many possible complications that can result from not treating
STDs. Some types of STDs commonly recur; some can result in permanent damage to
the reproductive organs and infertility. Having other STDs increases the risk
for becoming infected with HIV. Antibiotic resistance by organisms that cause
certain STDs may interfere with the effectiveness of treatment.
Depending on the type of STD you have, your provider may want to see you for
follow-up visits to be sure the disease has not recurred or to continue your
treatment. If you are pregnant, an STD can cause serious complications for your
unborn baby. Your provider will discuss treatment options with
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Review Date: October 2000
Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Jacqueline A. Hart, MD,
Department of Internal Medicine, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Harvard University
and Senior Medical Editor Integrative Medicine, Boston, MA; David Winston,
Herbalist, Herbalist and Alchemist, Inc., Washington,
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