STD Awareness: The Surprising Sexual Transmission of Non-STDs

What is a sexually transmitted disease, or STD? If someone catches their partner’s cold during sex, is that cold an STD? According to the Office on Women’s Health, an STD is “an infection passed from one person to another person through sexual contact.” Unless the cold was passed through sexual contact, rather than mouth-to-mouth contact, it would not be considered an STD. Others say that, for an infection to be considered an STD, its sexual transmission must make it significantly more common in the population. So, a disease like the common cold would probably be just as common even if people never had sex.


MRSA, meningitis, and the virus that causes pinkeye can be transmitted sexually.


However, there are some infections, such as hepatitis C or bacterial vaginosis, whose status as official STDs is controversial. While researchers argue with one another over where to draw the line between an STD and a non-STD, let’s take a look at some bacteria and viruses that can be transmitted sexually, even though they’re not officially categorized as “STDs.”

MRSA: Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus aureus

MRSA bursting out of a dead blood cell. Image: Frank DeLeo, NIAID

MRSA bursting out of a dead blood cell. Image: Frank DeLeo, NIAID

You’ve probably heard of MRSA, which is pronounced “mersa” and stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — a strain of bacteria that is resistant to every antibiotic in the penicillin family, as well as others. S. aureus, or “staph” for short, is the same bacteria responsible for TSS, or toxic shock syndrome, which has most infamously been associated with the use of highly absorbent tampons. But mostly, staph is a common cause of skin infections, which could be deadly in the pre-antibiotic era, but these days usually don’t raise too many eyebrows.

Unfortunately, with the emergence of MRSA, which is difficult to treat with the usual drugs, we might once again have to worry about minor skin infections blossoming into life-threatening conditions. Additionally, MRSA has found a way to hop from person to person via sexual contact, and sexually transmitted MRSA has been documented in both heterosexual and MSM (men who have sex with men) populations. Untreated, it can lead to a form of gangrene in which tissue blackens as it dies. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Human Papillomavirus Grabs Headlines

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most common STD out there — a fact made even more aggravating by the absence of a good test for it. Sure, Pap testing can detect cellular abnormalities triggered by HPV, and the HPV DNA test can find evidence of infection. But it’s not a definitive test — a negative Pap/HPV DNA co-test doesn’t rule out the possibility that you carry the virus. Ditto for the anal Pap test — which most people haven’t even heard of anyway!


There are more compelling reasons to vaccinate boys against HPV — and not-as-compelling reasons to think Gardasil could protect against skin cancer.


The lack of a good diagnostic test makes the HPV vaccine an even more valuable asset. If we can drive the virus to extinction through aggressive vaccination campaigns, our limited diagnostic abilities become a moot point. And recent headlines have given us reasons to love the HPV vaccine even more.

HPV and Men

Many people think of HPV as a women’s issue, as the virus causes cervical cancer, and for a long time, boys and men weren’t even targeted for vaccination. But HPV is everyone’s issue — genital warts don’t care what gender you are, and cancer-causing strains of HPV cause most cases of anal cancer, penile cancer, and oropharyngeal cancer. Recently, a large, first-of-its kind study published in JAMA Oncology analyzed penile swabs provided by 1,757 men to figure out how common HPV is in this population. (While there is no FDA-approved test for diagnosing male patients with HPV, scientists can still collect swabs for research purposes.)

The results: 45.2 percent of American men ages 18 to 59 carry genital HPV — for a total of nearly 35 million adult males. HPV carriers can transmit the virus to sexual partners through vaginal, anal, or oral sex — or even just rubbing genitals together, as the virus is spread by skin-to-skin contact. Furthermore, a quarter of men are infected with cancer-causing strains of HPV. And, while the female population sees a peak in HPV infections in their early 20s, men’s HPV prevalence increases with age. While 28.9 percent of men 18 to 22 years of age carried HPV, 50.8 percent of them carried it by the time they were 28 to 32 years of age, and 59.7 percent of 58- and 59-year-olds were carriers. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Shaving, Waxing, and Trimming, Oh My!

Last month, the connection between body-hair removal and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) once again gave rise to a flurry of headlines. Media had previously reported on “studies” purporting that the popularity of waxing is leading to the extinction of pubic lice, or that shaving increases risk for a little-known STD called molluscum contagiosum.

The idea that waxing one’s nether regions is tantamount to habitat destruction for the lowly pubic louse makes a certain amount of sense. But was it really true that waxing was leading to diminished pubic-lice populations, or just a case of the media blowing an obscure medical factoid out of proportion? Ditto with the claims about molluscum contagiosum — though they were based on perfectly plausible premises, having to do with shaving causing microscopic skin injuries that create openings for infectious viruses, the average reader might not have been able to rely on a journalist’s ability to translate a scientific article from “medical-ese” into an easy-to-understand, yet fully nuanced, magazine blurb.


The case isn’t closed on the link between body-hair removal and STDs.


As we’ve written before, the reporting in the popular media left out important details — such as the fact that these weren’t studies at all, but rather educated guesses based on observations, published as letters to the editor. No one was comparing pubic lice infestations or sexually transmitted infections between groups of people with and without pubic hair.

Until now.

The medical journal Sexually Transmitted Infections recently published a study based on a survey of 7,470 American adults who had had at least one sexual partner. The salient point the media pounced on was that removing pubic hair increases STD risk by 400 percent: NPR screamed that “Going Bare Down There May Boost The Risk Of STDs,” Time proclaimed “Grooming is linked to a higher risk of STIs,” and The Guardian spooked readers with a rather tasteless piece about “the health dangers of bikini waxing.” Even Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update got in on the action, albeit with a crude joke about old men’s genitals.

But let’s leave headlines behind and delve right into the medical journal itself. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Fully Antibiotic-Resistant Gonorrhea Is on the Horizon

shot-in-armWe’ve been anticipating its arrival for years now, but earlier this fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finally made an announcement: Cases of gonorrhea resistant to the last drugs we use to cure it are emerging.

Over the years, gonorrhea has evolved resistance to every drug we’ve thrown at it — sulfonamides, penicillins, tetracyclines, macrolides, fluoroquinolones, and narrow-spectrum cephalosporins. The last line of defense we have is a one-two punch of a pair of antibiotics: azithromycin and ceftriaxone. By using two drugs, we can delay the inevitable evolution of antibiotic resistance by attacking the bacteria in two vulnerable locations, rather than just one, making it more difficult for the bug to mount a defense and pass on its superior survival skills to subsequent generations.


Prevention is paramount: Stop the spread of antibiotic resistance by practicing safer sex!


Unfortunately, we could only stave off the inevitable for so long. At their conference in September, the CDC announced a cluster of gonorrhea infections that are highly resistant to azithromycin, and that fall prey only to high doses of ceftriaxone. As gonorrhea’s tolerance to ceftriaxone increases, the infection will get more and more difficult to cure.

This cluster of drug-resistant cases was identified in Honolulu in April and May of this year, with five infections showing “dramatic” resistance to azithromycin, as well as reduced vulnerability to ceftriaxone. The good news is that these cases were cured with higher-than-usual doses of antibiotics, but the bad news is that dosages can only climb so high before a drug is no longer considered to be an effective treatment. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

For the past decade, human papillomavirus, better known as HPV, has been a pretty consistent headline grabber. Formerly a little-discussed virus, HPV was catapulted into the public consciousness in 2006, when suddenly people were all aflutter about this cancer-causing sexually transmitted pathogen, as well as Gardasil, the three-shot vaccination series the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recommending to preteen girls as protection from cervical cancer.


Kids 14 and younger develop such a strong immune response to Gardasil that they only need two doses — not three!


Dialogue has evolved since then, as people have recognized that HPV causes more than just cervical cancer — including anal cancer, head-and-neck cancer, and penile cancer — meaning that all children should be vaccinated, not just girls. And fears that the vaccine will “encourage” promiscuity still abound, despite thorough scientific debunking. In fact, many experts believe that our skittishness surrounding sexuality — especially when it comes to teenagers — causes parents to turn a blind eye to the importance of vaccinating their children against HPV. (Unvaccinated children might not appreciate their parents’ choice, if, say, a few years down the line they find a smattering of genital warts below their belts.)

Ongoing scientific research into Gardasil and the virus it protects against provides continuous fodder for journalists covering medical and scientific advances. Here are just a few of the most recent headlines featuring HPV:

Continue reading

STD Awareness: Is Chlamydia Bad?

chlamydiaPerhaps your sexual partner has informed you that they have been diagnosed with chlamydia, and you need to get tested, too. Maybe you’ve been notified by the health department that you might have been exposed to chlamydia. And it’s possible that you barely know what chlamydia even is, let alone how much you should be worried about it.

Chlamydia is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) out there, especially among young people. It can be spread by oral, vaginal, and anal sex, particularly when condoms or dental dams were not used correctly or at all. It is often a “silent” infection, meaning that most people with chlamydia don’t experience symptoms — you can’t assume you don’t have it because you feel fine, and you can’t assume your partner doesn’t have it because they look fine. If you’re sexually active, the best way to protect yourself is to know your partner’s STD status and to practice safer sex.


Chlamydia increases risk for HIV, leads to fertility and pregnancy problems, and might increase cancer risk.


The good news about chlamydia is that it’s easy to cure — but first, you need to know you have it! And that’s why it’s important for sexually active people to receive regular STD screening. Left untreated, chlamydia can increase risk of acquiring HIV, can hurt fertility in both males and females, can be harmful during pregnancy, and might even increase risk for a certain type of cancer. So why let it wreak havoc on your body when you could just get tested and take a quick round of antibiotics?

To find out just how seriously you should take chlamydia, let’s answer a few common questions about it.

Can Chlamydia Increase HIV Risk?

Chlamydia does not cause HIV. Chlamydia is caused by a type of bacteria, while HIV is a virus that causes a fatal disease called AIDS. However, many STDs, including chlamydia, can increase risk for an HIV infection, meaning that someone with an untreated chlamydia infection is more likely to be infected with HIV if exposed to the virus. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Sexual Transmission of Zika Virus

Zika

Zika virus. Image: Cynthia Goldsmith, CDC

I first heard of Zika virus in an epidemiology class, when another student made on offhand remark: “Did you know Zika virus can be transmitted sexually?” Ever vigilant for material for the STD Awareness column, I excitedly scribbled the name of the virus in my notes. But upon further investigation, I found that there were only a couple of documented cases of the sexual transmission of this virus that no one had heard of, and decided there was no reason to freak people out about yet another potential STD when rates of more common STDs, like chlamydia and gonorrhea, were on the upswing.

A year later, Zika virus was splashed across headlines on a daily basis, mostly for its newfound association with birth defects, but also in light of revelations that it could be transmitted by sex.


Access to condoms and reliable contraception is more vital than ever.


While Zika virus is usually transmitted by mosquito bites, the discovery that it can be sexually transmitted made it the only known virus that could be spread both sexually and by mosquitoes. It’s also the only known mosquito-borne virus that can cross the placenta to harm a fetus. Like several other viruses, including CMV and rubella, Zika is implicated in serious birth defects. But many health authorities worry that its potential as a sexually transmitted pathogen is dangerously underestimated. As of August 31, there have been 23 confirmed sexually transmitted cases of Zika virus in the United States — but sexual transmission will rise as the virus jumps into local mosquitoes, which will also make it difficult or impossible to tell if a sexually active Zika patient got the virus from sex or directly from a mosquito.

Earlier this year, sexually transmitted Zika virus in Texas made headlines, with many journalists incorrectly proclaiming it the first known case of sexual transmission. In fact, Zika’s sexual transmission was first documented in 2008, before “Zika” was a household name and the married couple who published their experience in a scientific paper thought they could share their STD status in relative obscurity. Despite referring to themselves as “Patient 1” and “Patient 3,” a science reporter quickly figured it out and (with their permission) revealed their identities in a 2011 article — still years before Zika-bearing mosquitoes would hit the Americas and trigger a microcephaly epidemic that propelled the virus to infamy. Continue reading