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: Is Bacterial Vaginosis a Sexually Transmitted Disease?

Not to scale: Gardnerella vaginalis under a microscope. Image: K.K. Jefferson/Virginia Commonwealth University

Gardnerella vaginalis under a microscope. Image: K.K. Jefferson/Virginia Commonwealth University

Bacterial vaginosis, or BV, is the most common vaginal infection among people 15 to 44 years of age. It’s caused by an overgrowth of harmful bacteria, such as Gardnerella vaginalis. A healthy vagina hosts thriving populations of Lactobacillus bacteria species, but when these “good” bacteria are crowded out by certain types of “bad” bacteria, the vaginal ecosystem can be shifted, causing BV.

There is a lot of confusion about BV. Is it a sexually transmitted disease (STD)? What are the symptoms? How can you avoid it?

All good questions. Let’s examine them one by one.

Is BV an STD?

The consensus seems to be that BV isn’t officially an STD, but even reliable sources have somewhat contradictory information. Planned Parenthood doesn’t list BV as an STD on their informational webpages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does include BV on their STD website, but also says that “BV is not considered an STD.”

On the other hand, the Office on Women’s Health says that “BV can … be caused by vaginal, oral, or anal sex” and that “you can get BV from male or female partners.” And there’s an entire chapter devoted to BV in the premier medical textbook on STDs, and its authors say that, while sexually inexperienced females can get BV, “the weight of evidence supports sexual transmission” of G. vaginalis, the bacteria species most famously implicated in BV infections.

The same webpage on which the CDC declared BV not to be an STD also says that it can be transferred between female sexual partners. Indeed, women who have sex with women have higher rates of BV. Since vaginal fluid could spread BV, partners can change condoms when a sex toy is passed from one to another, and use barriers like dental dams when engaging in cunnilingus (oral contact with the female genitalia) or rimming (oral contact with the anus).

What about heterosexual transmission? Continue reading

Does Douching Work?

illustration of a douching apparatus from an 1882 medical handbook

As a newly minted teenager, I was helping my mother go through some of my recently deceased great-grandmother’s things. I held a mysterious object in my hands and studied it curiously, puzzling over its unfamiliar form, pastel color scheme, and floral pattern. Finally, I gave up: “What is this?” I exclaimed. My mom, instantly uncomfortable, muttered her answer through clenched teeth: “It’s a douche bag,” she replied.

I remember being rather scandalized, but also a bit amused to be holding a piece of ancient misogynist history in my hands. Even as a junior high student, I knew that douching was marketed toward women with the message that their vaginas were “dirty” and in need of “cleansing” — scientifically invalidated ideas to which we surely no longer adhered. It seemed fitting that we were sorting through the belongings of a person born in the 19th century, dividing them into the useful and useless. Surely the douche bag belonged in the latter category.


Just because douching products are available in drugstores doesn’t mean they’re safe or effective.


Little did I know, more than 20 years ago, that douching hasn’t exactly been relegated to a historical footnote. Overall, nearly 25 percent of American women 15 to 44 years old douche regularly — which is down from nearly a third in 2002. Douching rates may vary by ethnic group: CDC data from 2005 found that 59 percent of non-Hispanic black women, 36 percent of Latinas, and 27 percent of white women douche. Socioeconomic status and education level can also be a factor.

For those of you who don’t know, vaginal douching is the practice of flushing the vagina with a liquid, which is administered through a nozzle that is inserted into the vagina. Some people believe that douching cleanses or deodorizes the vagina, or can prevent pregnancy or infections. Some might think their partners expect them to douche, or that douching will “tighten” or “rejuvenate” their vaginas.  Continue reading

STD Awareness: Drug-Resistant Trichomoniasis

Two trophozoites of Trichomonas vaginalis, the causative agent of trichomoniasis. Image from the CDC’s Parasite Image Library.

Trichomonas vaginalis organisms, which cause trichomoniasis. Image: Parasite Image Library, CDC

You’ve probably heard of MRSA, which is a strain of Staphylococcus aureus that evolved resistance to all kinds of antibiotics. You also might have heard of other “superbugs,” like Clostridium difficile, aka “C. diff,” or the emerging strains of bacteria that cause antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea. However, other infectious diseases are slowly evolving drug resistance too, but they’re not grabbing headlines. One such disease is trichomoniasis.


We are only starting to learn about drug-resistant trich — and what it means for those who have it.


Trichomonas vaginalis is the single-celled parasite that causes trichomoniasis, or trich (pronounced “trick”). Symptoms can include vaginal discharge (which might have a bad odor), penile burning or discharge, spotting, and itching or swelling in the genital area — but around 70 percent of trich infections are asymptomatic.

Despite its appearance on our list of 10 STDs you’ve probably never heard of, trich is actually the most common curable sexually transmitted disease out there — around 3.7 million Americans are currently infected with trich. When you consider that trich rarely has symptoms, its ubiquity might not even seem all that surprising — there are millions of infections, right under our noses, but mostly unknown and not being aggressively screened for. STD testing doesn’t always include screening for trich, especially in males, who usually don’t have symptoms and can transmit it to others unknowingly. This might not be so bad if trich didn’t cause complications with pregnancy or make it easier to be infected with HIV. Continue reading

STD Awareness: 10 Myths About Sexually Transmitted Diseases

The Internet is brimming with contradictory claims about sexual health, and you don’t know what to believe. Your friends give you advice, but you’re not sure if it sounds right. To make things worse, you might not have had evidence-based, medically accurate sex education in your school. In this edition of our STD Awareness series, we’ll take on a few myths about sexually transmitted diseases to help you sort fact from fiction.

1 MYTH: You can tell if someone has an STD by looking at them.
You might expect that if someone has an STD, their genitals would have blisters, warts, or noticeable discharge. But your partner looks fine, so you might think there’s no need to ask when his or her last STD test was.

However, while many people with STDs do have visible symptoms, they’re the exception rather than the rule. For example, three out of four women and half of men with chlamydia have no symptoms. Herpes is often spread when there are no symptoms present. Someone can be infected with HIV — and capable of transmitting it to others — and go years without showing any signs. A quick visual inspection can’t tell you very much about someone’s STD status.

2 MYTH: You can’t get an STD from oral sex.
While it is generally true that oral sex presents less of a risk for contracting STDs, this risk is not trivial. Most STDs can be passed along by oral sex, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis B, herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), and HIV. You can reduce your risk by using barrier methods like condoms and dental dams consistently and correctly.

3 MYTH: Condoms can’t prevent the spread of HIV.
Many proponents of abstinence-only education state that condoms don’t protect against HIV, claiming that latex condoms have holes that are large enough for viruses to pass through. This claim isn’t backed by evidence. An intact latex condom dramatically reduces your risk of being exposed to sexually transmitted viruses such as HIV. (It is true that a lambskin condom does not provide adequate protection against HIV.) Continue reading

Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does, Part 11: Diagnosing and Treating Epididymitis

Welcome to the latest installment of “Over 90 Percent of What Planned Parenthood Does,” a series on Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona’s blog that highlights Planned Parenthood’s diverse array of services — the ones Jon Kyl doesn’t know about.

Planned Parenthood Arizona treats epididymitis.This statement might raise a few questions:

Q: What’s epididymitis?
A: Epididymitis is the inflammation, or swelling, of the epididymis, resulting in pain in the scrotum.
Q: That’s great, but what the heck is an epididymis?
A: The epididymis is a tube that is connected to the testicle, and is where sperm are stored before ejaculation. The epididymis is 12 to 15 feet long, but is coiled tightly enough to fit inside the scrotum alongside the testes!


Chlamydia causes 70 percent of epididymitis cases in young heterosexuals. This STD is easily treated but frequently asymptomatic — and prevented by condoms.


So, basically, epididymitis is a condition that can strike anyone whose reproductive anatomy features an epididymis. It is generally caused by a bacterial infection — which may be sexually transmitted, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, or may not be sexually transmitted, such as tuberculosis. Very rarely, epididymitis can be caused by other pathogens, such as viruses, fungi, or parasites. Inflammation of the epididymis can also be caused by the heart medication amiodarone (also known as Pacerone).

Epididymitis most commonly affects males between the ages of 14 and 35. Risk factors, regardless of age, include being uncircumcised, a history of prostate or urinary tract infections, having had surgery in the urinary tract, having a history of a neurogenic bladder, an enlarged prostate, regularly using a catheter, and not using condoms during vaginal or anal intercourse.

The symptoms of epididymitis usually develop over one or two days and can include: Continue reading

STD Awareness: “What Are the Symptoms of an STD?”

“I was treated for chlamydia, but my girlfriend feels fine, so she doesn’t need to get tested.”

“The only time I don’t use condoms is for oral sex, and everything’s been OK ‘down there,’ so getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases would be pointless.”

It’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms of a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Being savvy about symptoms can push you to get tested right away if you notice that something is amiss. However, being symptom-free can lull you into a false sense of security, especially if you’ve engaged in sexual activities that could have exposed you to an infectious agent. The fact of the matter is that many people with STDs have no symptoms at all. As they say, “The most common symptom of an STD is … no symptom.” Let’s take a look at some common STDs.


The most common symptom of an STD is no symptom.


Bacterial Infections

Bacterial STDs are curable with antibiotics. They include chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis — all of which can be asymptomatic, and all of which can have severe complications when they are not treated in time.

Chlamydia: Around 3 million Americans are infected with chlamydia annually, and the infection is especially common among young people (less than 25 years of age). Chlamydia can infect the penis, vagina, cervix, anus, urethra, eye, or throat. You can be afflicted with a range of symptoms: pain or a burning feeling while urinating; vaginal, cervical, or penile discharge; swelling around the anus, testicles, or vagina; and more.

However, you’re much more likely not to experience any symptoms at all — most people with chlamydia are unaware they have it. Three out of four women with chlamydia have no symptoms, and half of men with chlamydia have no symptoms. Left untreated, chlamydia can become a serious health threat. Long-term complications might lead to fertility problems and arthritis. Continue reading