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Use caution, education to prevent STDs
Health advice
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Out of frustration, some police departments are seeking new ways to lower the incidence of unlawful sexual behavior by raising the consequences. Men caught in prostitution stings in Daytona Beach, Fla., will have letters mailed to their homes stating that they were picked up and why. Included with the letter is information on sexually transmitted diseases and symptoms to watch for. Imagine the impact that piece of mail could have.
Sexually transmitted diseases are considered by health professionals to be one of the five most serious life-threatening illnesses that can be prevented. All sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, are preventable. Using protection could all but eliminate these diseases, but people still continue to practice unsafe sex, which could result in a disease that may be difficult to treat or — worst-case scenario — fatal.
Every 60 seconds, more than 17 young Americans contract a sexually transmitted disease. This year, more than 9 million new cases of STDs will be contracted by American men and women ages 15 to 24, accounting for nearly half of all newly acquired STDs in the United States. Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than 70 million Americans currently have an STD.
Sexually transmitted diseases are diseases caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites or fungi. They can be very painful, irritating, debilitating, and some are life-threatening. They are among the most common infectious diseases in the United States today with more than 30 different types currently identified. And while they can’t all be cured, they could all have been prevented.
To prevent STDs, you must first understand how you get them. Most STDs are transmitted only during sexual contact — by skin-to-skin contact or through an exchange of bodily fluids. The microorganisms that cause STDs tend to be sensitive to environmental conditions and can’t survive outside the human body for long.
The STDs caused by bacteria can be successfully treated and cured; these include chlamydia, gonorrhea, pelvic Inflammatory diseases, syphilis and trichomoniasis. Others are caused by a virus and have no current cure; they include genital herpes, genital warts, hepatitis B and C and AIDS. While there is no current cure, hepatitis B is preventable with a vaccine. There is also a vaccine for HPV, but no cure.
Understanding the basic facts about STDs — the ways they are spread, their common symptoms and how they can be treated — is the first step toward prevention. It is, therefore, important to understand the key points (common in all STDs) listed below:
• While STDs affect men and women of all backgrounds and economic levels, they are most prevalent among teenagers and young adults — with nearly two-thirds of all STDs occurring in people younger than 25.
• The incidence of STDs is rising and this may be due to several factors. Young people today have become sexually active earlier yet are marrying later and divorce is much more common. The net result is that sexually active people today are more likely to have multiple sex partners during their lives and are potentially at greater risk for catching STDs.
• In some cases, STDs may not have noticeable symptoms — particularly in women. And when symptoms do develop, they may be confused with those of other diseases not transmitted through sexual contact. But even when an STD does not cause symptoms, a person who is infected can pass the disease onto their partners.
• Health problems caused by STDs tend to be more severe and more frequent for women than for men. A lack of or minor symptoms early in the disease may mean that many women do not seek care until serious problems have developed.
• STDs can be passed from a mother to her baby before, during or immediately after birth. And while some of these infections  can be easily cured in newborns, others may cause permanently disabilities or even death.
• When diagnosed and treated early, most STDs can be treated effectively, but some have become resistant to the drugs used to treat them and now require different types of antibiotics.
• Experts believe that having STDs increase the risk for becoming infected with AIDS.
The best way to prevent STDs is to avoid sexual contact with others. If you decide to be sexually active, there are things that you can do to reduce your risk of developing an STD:
• Have a mutually monogamous sexual relationship with an uninfected partner.
• Delay having sexual relations as long as possible. The younger people are when having sex for the first time, the more susceptible they become to developing an STD. The risk of acquiring an STD also increases with the number of partners over a lifetime.
• Correctly and consistently use male condoms.
• Avoid drugs.
• Prevent and control other STDs to decrease susceptibility to HIV infection and to reduce your infectiousness if you are HIV-infected.
If you are sexually active, you should:
• Have regular checkups for STDs even in the absence of symptoms, and especially if having sex with a new partner.
• Learn common symptoms of STDs. Seek medical help if any suspicious symptoms develop.
• Avoid having sex during menstruation. HIV-infected women are probably more infectious, and women who aren’t HIV-positive are probably more susceptible to becoming infected during that time.
• Avoid anal intercourse, but if practiced, use a male condom. Some STDs, like herpes or genital warts, may be contracted through skin-to-skin contact  with an infected area or sore.  Viruses or bacteria that cause STDs can enter the body through tiny cuts or tears in the mouth and anus, as well as the genital area.
Untreated STDs can be painful and make you very ill — some can be fatal. They can make it hard for women to get pregnant and for men to father children. STDs can cause birth defects and health problems in newborns. So don’t be too embarrassed or frightened to ask for help or information about sexually transmitted diseases. The earlier a person seeks treatment and warns sex partners, the more the damage can be contained.

Ratcliffe is a consultant to the Coastal Health District. You can call her at 876-6399.
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