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Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) affect people of all backgrounds and economic levels. Yet African-Americans have high rates of many common STIs. Compared to white women, African-American women have:

  • Chlamydia (kluh-MID-ee-uh) rates that are more than seven times higher
  • Gonorrhea (gon-uh-REE-uh) rates that are about 16 times higher
  • Syphilis rates that are 21 times higher  



STIs are harmful, especially to women. STIs that are not treated can cause cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, and other health problems. If a pregnant woman has an STI, it can harm her baby's health. Having an STI also can increase a woman's risk of getting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

STIs are spread through sexual contact. Most often, you can't tell if a person has an STI because many STIs have no or mild symptoms. But STIs can still be passed from person to person even if there are no symptoms. If you're having sex, get tested for STIs. Treatment can cure many STIs.

You can lower your risk of STIs by taking the following steps. The steps work best when used together. No single strategy can protect you from all STIs.

  • Don't have sex. The surest way to keep from getting any STI is to practice abstinence. This means not having vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Keep in mind that some STIs, like genital herpes, can be spread without having intercourse.
  • Be faithful. Having a sexual relationship with one partner who has been tested for STIs and is not infected is another way to lower your risk of getting infected. Be faithful to each other. This means you only have sex with each other and no one else.
  • Use condoms correctly and every time you have sex. Use condoms for all types of sexual contact, even if intercourse does not take place. Use condoms from the very start to the very end of each sex act, and with every sex partner. A male latex condom offers the best protection. You can use a male polyurethane condom if you or your partner has a latex allergy. For vaginal sex, use a male latex condom or a female condom if your partner won't wear a condom. For anal sex, use a male latex condom. For oral sex, use a male latex condom. A dental dam might also offer some protection from some STIs.
  • Know that some methods of birth control, like birth control pills, shots, implants, or diaphragms, will not protect you from STIs. If you use one of these methods, be sure to also use a condom correctly every time you have sex.
  • Talk with your sex partner(s) about STIs and using condoms before having sex. It's up to you to set the ground rules and to make sure you are protected.
  • Don't assume you're at low risk for STIs if you have sex only with women. Some common STIs are spread easily by skin-to-skin contact. Also, most women who have sex with women have had sex with men, too. So a woman can get an STI from a male partner and then pass it to a female partner.
  • Talk frankly with your doctor and your sex partner(s) about any STIs you or your partner has or has had. Talk about symptoms, such as sores or discharge. Try not to be embarrassed. Your doctor is there to help you with any and all health problems. Also, being open with your doctor and partner will help you protect your health and the health of others.
  • Get tested for STIs if you are at risk. Ask your doctor if you should be tested for STIs and how often you should be retested. Testing for many STIs is simple and often can be done during your checkup. The sooner an STI is found, the easier it is to treat. If you are age 24 or younger, you should be tested for chlamydia yearly if you are sexually active or pregnant.
  • Avoid using drugs or drinking too much alcohol. These activities may lead to risky sexual behavior, such as not wearing a condom.

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More information on Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

Read more from womenshealth.gov

  • Chlamydia Fact Sheet - This fact sheet provides information on chlamydia infection, including its symptoms, how it is spread, how it is treated, and how to avoid contracting chlamydia.
  • Genital Herpes Fact Sheet - This fact sheet provides information on genital herpes, its symptoms, ways to reduce outbreaks, and the complications that it might cause.
  • Gonorrhea Fact Sheet - This fact sheet provides information on gonorrhea, symptoms, treatment options, and how to avoid getting this infection.
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and Genital Warts Fact Sheet - This fact sheet provides information on human papillomavirus (HPV) and genital warts. It includes modes of transmission, treatments, and ways to prevent HPV and genital warts.
  • Sexually Transmitted Infections Fact Sheet - This fact sheet explains what a sexually transmitted infection (STI) is and why STIs are especially harmful to women. It lists common STIs and their symptoms.
  • Syphilis Fact Sheet - This fact sheet explains what syphilis is, how it is spread, and how best to avoid infection. It describes symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment, and lists sources to contact for more information on syphilis.

Explore other publications and websites

  • HPV Vaccine: What You Need to Know - This fact sheet discusses the benefits and risks of getting the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. It also defines HPV and talks about who should get the vaccination, who should wait, and where you can get more information.
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Tutorial - This online tutorial gives information to the general public about sexually transmitted diseases.
  • STDs and Pregnancy - This online fact sheet answers common questions that a pregnant woman may have about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Some topics that are discussed are becoming infected with an STD, STD trends in pregnant women, and treatments for STDs in pregnant women.
  • STDs Today - This online publication provides a detailed review of important sexually transmitted infections affecting people in the United States. For each disease, this publication provides an overview of key issues, risk groups, and basic statistics.
  • Syphilis - This fact sheet briefly describes the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of syphilis. The ways in which the disease affects pregnant women is also discussed.

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Content last updated March 01, 2012.

Resources last updated May 18, 2010.

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