Hesperian Health Guides

Chapter 18: Sexually transmitted infections

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HealthWiki > A Book for Midwives > Chapter 18: Sexually transmitted infections

What are sexually transmitted infections?
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Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that are passed from one person to another during sex. Men, women, and their children can all be affected by STIs. Some common STIs are gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomonas, syphilis, chancroid, herpes, hepatitis B, and HIV. If a person has any of these signs, he or she may have an STI:

  • bad-smelling discharge
  • itching genitals
  • painful genitals
  • sores or blisters on the genitals
  • pain in the pelvis or pain during sex

It is also very common to have an STI and have no signs at all. Many women and men have STIs but do not know it.

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Untreated STIs can lead to very serious health problems, so anyone with an STI needs treatment as soon as possible. A woman with an untreated STI can develop a tubal pregnancy, cancer of the cervix, or can become infertile. An untreated STI in a pregnant woman can cause a baby to be born too early, too small, blind, sick, or dead. A person who has one STI can more easily get another — including HIV.

This chapter describes the most common STIs and explains how to treat them and prevent them. It also describes some other infections of the genitals that are common but are not transmitted sexually.

How STIs are passed

To get an STI, a person must have close contact with someone who is already infected. The contact can be sexual intercourse (sex with the man’s penis inside the woman’s vagina), anal sex (penis in anus), or less often, oral sex (mouth on genitals or anus). STIs can sometimes pass from just rubbing an infected penis or vagina against another person’s genitals. Many people get STIs from people who have no signs of being infected.

STIs can be prevented by not having sex with anyone who has an infection. Many STIs can be prevented by using condoms. Learn about preventing HIV and other STIs.

Babies can also be infected with an STI through the mother’s blood during pregnancy or during birth when they pass through the vagina.

Treating STIs

Most STIs will get better or go away if the person with the STI gets treated right away. But many women do not get treatment. A woman may not be able to afford treatment. She may feel embarrassed or ashamed. She may be afraid that her husband will think she had sex with someone else.

For these reasons, the way you care for a woman who may have an STI is very important. If a woman comes to you for help, do not tell anyone else what she told you. She may not come to you for help again. Do not criticize her. Answer her questions honestly, and as best as you can. If you cannot treat her infection, help her find low-cost care nearby.

a man and woman speaking as they walk toward a door labeled health clinic.
I don't want to go to the clinic.
But if we don't both get cured
we'll just get infected again.
  • Treat STIs as soon as possible. Early treatment for STIs costs less and is more effective than later treatment.
  • Treat partners too. Treating a woman for an STI will not help if her partner is still infected.
  • Make sure the woman takes all the medicine she is given. Even if the signs of infection go away, a person must take all the medicine to cure the infection completely.

Note: All the medicines listed in this chapter are safe to take during pregnancy or while breastfeeding unless we include a warning that says they are not safe. Women who are not pregnant or breastfeeding may be able to take other, more effective drugs. See the book Where Women Have No Doctor or talk to a pharmacist to find out about other drugs.

This page was updated:11 Sep 2019