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Quick Guide to Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Infections (STDs/STIs)

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infectious diseases that can spread from one person to another primarily through sexual contact. If a sexually transmitted infection causes symptoms, it is considered to be a disease (sexually transmitted disease – STD).

Sexual couple in bedroomThey’re caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites that live in our bodies. The infection can be transmitted in several ways depending on a person’s sexual behavior:

  • oral sex (mouth-to-genital contact),
  • anal sex (rectal-to-genital contact),
  • vaginal sex (vaginal-to-genital contact), or
  • skin-to-skin contact with an infected area of the body.

Some forms of STDs can also spread from mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth.

STIs and STDs are common but preventable diseases that can have a serious impact on your health, relationships and daily life.

Read our guide to have an overview of the different STDs, their symptoms, when to get tested for STDs, and how to protect yourself from being infected. Being informed about them is the best way to protect yourself and others.

How are STDs/STIs diagnosed?

Some STDs/STIs may be diagnosed during a physical exam or through microscopic examination of a sore or fluid swabbed from the vagina, penis, or urethra (urinary tract).

At FirstMed, we understand our patients’ specific needs, and offer a set of STD test packages:

  • STD Quick Test from BloodSTD Panel Quick Test processes a blood sample for analysis in our in-house lab. The test can reveal the presence of HIV/AIDS as well as Syphilis and Hepatitis very fast, usually within 45 minutes. In case the result gets positive, a confirmatory test should be carried out at an external laboratory. In this case, you will get the final results one week later.
  • The STD Panel PCR Test detects diseases that may not show up in standard blood tests, such as HPV, sexual herpes, gonorrhea, or chlamydia. The samples will be analyzed in a lab which takes approximately one week. Choose this test if you suspect that a specific body part might have been infected, or if any symptoms are present. The test is performed by taking urine samples or swabbing the inside of your mouth, genitals or rectum.
  • Our combo package includes both kinds of tests and can detect the most STDs at a discounted price. This is the best option if you’re worried about being infected by more than one STD.

If you are not sure which kind of infection you should be tested for, consult with a doctor, who can determine which tests are necessary based on your sexual history and symptoms.

How often should you get tested for STDs/STIs?

Several sexually transmitted diseases have little to no signs or symptoms, and not all sexually transmitted infections turn into a disease. It’s important to get tested if you’ve been exposed, even without showing symptoms yet.

What are the most common STDs?

Read more below about specific STDs, their symptoms and treatments:

HIV is the virus that causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). In 2021 over 38 million people worldwide were living with HIV/AIDS, and 650,000 people died from it.

HIV, AIDSHuman immunodeficiency virus (HIV) affects the immune system — the body’s natural defense against germs, infections, and diseases — by attacking T-cells (a type of white blood cell). When these cells get destroyed by HIV, a person becomes vulnerable to infections like pneumonia or tuberculosis.

HIV is transmitted through contact with the blood, semen, vaginal fluids or breast milk of someone who has been infected with the virus. This can happen in several ways, such as

  • having unprotected sex (vaginal, anal and oral) (where there’s no condom),
  • sexual activities that involve exchanging body fluids (like deep kissing),
  • sharing needles or getting a tattoo from someone who has the virus,
  • during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding.

Generally it can take up to 8-10 years from the time the virus settles in for the actual disease to develop.

A person who is infected with HIV but doesn’t have symptoms yet is considered “asymptomatic.” This means that although there may be some inflammation in their body caused by the virus itself or other infections related to it (like syphilis), overall health looks fine on paper:

  • blood tests come back negative for antibodies specific to any known STDs;
  • physical exams show no signs of illness;
  • doctors cannot detect any physical symptoms such as fever or fatigue.

Here are some signs to look for that may indicate HIV infection:

  • flu-like symptoms (with or without fever) that last longer than a few days
  • swollen lymph nodes in your neck, groin, or armpits
  • a sore throat that doesn’t go away after several weeks, especially if it’s accompanied by fever and fatigue
  • recurrent fungal infections like athlete’s foot or ringworm
  • chronic diarrhea
  • unusual fatigue, especially if it persists for weeks at a time.

If you think you were exposed, the best is to take a test two weeks after a possible infection. Even if the initial result is negative, it’s a good idea to get tested again several weeks later. Sometimes it takes longer for the antibodies to show up. And then the antibody test can show other infections, such as syphilis or hepatitis.

If you test positive for HIV, consult a doctor as soon as possible. The doctor can begin antiretroviral treatment (ART) and periodically monitor your condition using clinical and laboratory parameters, including the test to measure the virus in the blood (viral load). If you take ART consistently, it may also prevent the transmission of HIV to others.

Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, which is usually caused by a viral infection. Among the viruses that cause hepatitis, types B and C (HBV and HCV) can be sexually transmitted, while the others are spread through contaminated food. Hepatitis B and C viruses can be passed from one person to another in different ways:

  • sexual intercourse with an infected person;
  • intravenous drugs (using a shared needle);
  • from mother to child during childbirth or breastfeeding.

It significantly decreases the risk of getting these forms of hepatitis if you have been vaccinated against it or if your partner has been screened for the virus before having sex with you. The infection is most widespread in Asia and African countries. Thanks to mandatory vaccinations, their number in Europe is estimated at 14-15 million, while worldwide approx. 350 million infected people are registered.

Hepatitis B symptoms include fever and weakness, followed by jaundice (when the whites of a person’s eyes turn yellow). Next, their skin turns yellow. The stool becomes light in color and urine turns brown; the liver is also enlarged under the right rib cage.

Hepatitis C is usually symptomless; in rare cases, however, it may cause fever and other flu-like symptoms.

If you have been exposed to hepatitis B or C, testing is the only way to be sure whether you have been infected. Hepatitis B and C can be detected at the earliest of 6 weeks after possible infection. If you test negative but remain concerned about the possibility of infection, another set of tests can be run 6 months or later from that date.

If left untreated, hepatitis B and C infection can lead to liver cancer!

Syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, which is spread through direct contact with syphilis sores (known as a chancre). These can be found on the lips, mouth, genitals, or anus of an infected person. The sores are usually painless and go unnoticed.

The infection can be transmitted through direct contact with an infected sore during sex or another intimate physical contact. In pregnant women, syphilis can be passed to the fetus during pregnancy or childbirth, leading to stillbirths or premature delivery of an infected baby who may also have congenital defects.

The disease can affect multiple parts of the body, including the skin, bones and nervous system.

Common symptoms of syphilis are:

  • a sore on the genitals or mouth,
  • a rash that looks like small red sores and/or pimples,
  • headaches and fatigue.

Antibody blood tests can reveal the infection after 4-5 weeks. In certain cases, it is necessary to get tested again a few weeks later. It’s important to know that the level of antibodies in the blood changes. It can remain negative even with untreated syphilis and can remain positive for life after treatment.

Syphilis can be cured with antibiotic therapy, but it may take several weeks or months for symptoms to disappear. If left untreated, it can cause serious health problems.

Chlamydia is a bacterial infection caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. It’s usually transmitted during sexual activity, but can also be passed from one person to another through other ways if blood or other bodily fluids are shared. Three-quarters of women, while half of the men carry the infection asymptomatic and it does not cause any complaints.

An infected person may have mild urinary complaints (hips, burning in the urethra) 3-4 days after infection. Urethritis may cause bloody urine. Women may experience vaginal bleeding between periods, after intercourse, or after menopause.

Many people do not experience any symptoms, and the infection can only be detected by testing. PCR tests can identify chlamydia in a urine sample by analyzing it in a laboratory.

If the infection is detected early, it can be treated with antibiotics. If left untreated, chlamydia can cause serious complications such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), ectopic pregnancy, and in rare cases, infertility.

For pregnant women, chlamydia can also cause premature delivery, low birth weight and eye infections in newborns; and pneumonia in infants under 6 months old who have been exposed to chlamydia during delivery.

Gonorrhea is caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae, which infects the genitals, rectum, and throat. It’s spread through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex with an infected partner, and can only be detected from the site of infection.

It can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby during childbirth if she doesn’t receive treatment beforehand–this is why pregnant women should get tested regularly for STDs.

Most people who have gonorrhea don’t experience any symptoms, therefore it can be detected only by testing. A gonorrhea test usually involves taking a urine sample or swab from the throat, rectum, or vagina.

Warning signs can be:

  • burning sensation when urinating;
  • discharge from the penis or vagina; or
  • bleeding between periods.

Gonorrhea can successfully be treated by antibiotics, but it can take several days to weeks before you feel better. If you think you have gonorrhea, contact your healthcare provider immediately.

If left untreated, gonorrhea can cause serious health problems in both men and women, including infertility; pelvic inflammatory disease (PID); ectopic pregnancy (when the embryo implants outside of the uterus) if you become pregnant while infected with gonorrhea; and an increased risk for HIV transmission.

Mycoplasma, ureaplasma and trichomoniasis bacteria can cause genital or urinary tract infections, but they’re not as common as other STIs like chlamydia or gonorrhea. The disease may also be transferred from an infected partner who doesn’t have any symptoms of their own.
Testing is performed on urine or genital secretions, blood tests cannot detect yeast infections.

Symptoms of mycoplasma, ureaplasma and trichomoniasis may include:

  • burning sensation when urinating.
  • painful urination (especially with mycoplasma)
  • irritation or itching around the genitals
  • unusual discharge from the genitals (in some cases).

Mycoplasma is most often asymptomatic and self-limited, meaning it goes away on its own without treatment. Ureaplasma and trichomoniasis also tend to be milder than chlamydia or gonorrhea.

Mycoplasma, ureaplasma and trichomoniasis can be treated with antibiotics. If you have symptoms, or your test becomes positive, see your doctor and get treated right away. In rare cases, mycoplasma can cause pneumonia or other complications in people with weakened immune systems (such as those with HIV/AIDS).

Genital herpes is a common STD that affects the genitals, mouth, and throat. It is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV).

There are two types of HSV:

  • HSV-1 usually causes cold sores around the mouth,
  • HSV-2 usually causes genital herpes

but both types can infect other parts of the body as well.

Genital herpes is spread from person to person through sexual contact with an infected partner. Sexual intercourse (vaginal or anal) and oral sex are the most common ways to get infected with HSV-2.

Infected people may have sores on or around their genitals and anus, which can be painful and last for several weeks before healing completely; however, some people never notice any symptoms at all!

Other symptoms include:

  • painful urination,
  • headache/fever/nausea/vomiting (stomach flu),
  • swollen glands around the groin area (lymph nodes),
  • muscle aches, especially in the lower back region, and
  • swollen eyes due to conjunctivitis (pink eye).

A PCR test for HSV-2 is the most accurate way to confirm whether you have genital herpes. Testing is carried out on a sample of fluid taken from the sores. This fluid contains DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) which is then tested for HSV-2 antibodies, the protein that your immune system makes when fighting off an infection.

If you think you or your partner might have herpes, make an appointment with a doctor for an exam and get tested. Herpes is not curable, but some medications can help reduce the symptoms of an outbreak.

Genital herpes sores tend to heal within two weeks. If left untreated could cause serious problems such as blindness or even death!

HPV (Human Papillomavirus)

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections. The virus is usually transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, most commonly during sexual intercourse, infecting the mucus membranes of the mouth, throat, or genitals. It can also be transmitted through oral and anal sex or even nonsexual contact with the infected area.

The HPV is a family of about 200 viruses, many of which are harmless, although some can also cause genital warts and serious health problems—including cervical cancer.

The length of the incubation period for HPV is highly variable, ranging from a few weeks to several months. The infection is usually asymptomatic, temporary, or in most cases, it does not cause illness at all. The virus may disappear from the body by itself within 1-2 years.
Vaccines can prevent certain types of HPV infection from developing into full-blown diseases, but they don’t treat current infections or past ones.

But even if HPV displays no symptoms, it may still cause infection—so it’s important to get tested if you want to know your status!

HPV (Human Papillomavirus)

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common STI. The virus is usually transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, most commonly during sexual intercourse, infecting the mucus membranes of the mouth, throat, or genitals. It can also be transmitted through oral and anal sex or even nonsexual contact with the infected area.

The incubation period for HPV can range from a few weeks to several months. The infection is usually asymptomatic, temporary, or may not cause illness at all. However, in serious cases of HPV, the virus can cause genital warts and serious health problems—including cervical and other cancers.

STD Test

HPV can be detected by taking a sample of cells from the lower part of the vagina or anus and examining them for signs of HPV DNA. A Pap test (also called a cervical smear) is also one way to gather those cells so they can be studied.

Vaccines can prevent certain types of HPV infection from developing into full-blown diseases, but they don’t treat current infections or past ones.

But even if HPV displays no symptoms, it may still cause infection—so it’s important to get tested if you want to know your status!

Sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, can lead to serious health problems

Some STDs can spread from one partner to another during sexual contact and others through contact with infected fluids like semen, vaginal fluid and blood. Some STDs are curable while others require lifelong treatment or regular checkups for monitoring purposes.

These ways lower the chances of getting an STD:

  • Using a condom during sexual intercourse.
  • Being in a monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner or limiting the number of sexual partners you have.
  • Waiting to become sexually active until after age 18 (if possible).
  • Get tested regularly.

If you think you may have contracted an STD or STI, make an appointment for testing soon as possible. If your test gets positive, or if you have any symptoms, see a doctor, so they can start with the proper treatment. The earlier you find out about a potential infection, the better chance you have of treating it before it gets worse. If left untreated, a sexually transmitted disease can lead to serious health problems or even death!

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