If you’ve ever had a sexually transmitted infection (STI), you’re not alone. The CDC estimates one in five Americans has an STI, and cases have been on the rise in recent years. 

How you manage an STI depends on the specific infection you've been exposed to. While some STIs may resolve on their own, many require treatment. Without proper treatment, certain STIs can lead to health complications that impact your future health and fertility. 

In this article, we'll explore the most common STIs and discuss treatment options to better understand why ignoring an STI isn’t an effective approach to treatment. 

woman discussing stis with her doctor

But first, what is an STI?

The CDC categorizes sexually transmitted infections as viral, bacterial, fungal, or parasitic infections spread through unprotected sex. Transmission occurs when bodily fluids are exchanged between an infected individual and another during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. 

There are over 30 pathogens that can be spread through sexual contact, but the most common STIs include:

  • Chlamydia

  • Gonorrhea 

  • Hepatitis

  • Herpes

  • HIV

  • HPV

  • Syphilis

  • Trichomoniasis

Every day, over a million people are diagnosed with chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, or trichomoniasis worldwide. One reason STIs are so common is because many infections are asymptomatic. An individual who isn’t experiencing symptoms can spread an infection unknowingly or even have multiple STIs at once.

It’s important to get tested regularly if you’re having unprotected sex with more than one partner or someone new. Doing so can prevent potential exposures from causing long-term health complications that impact your reproductive health. If your future plans include starting a family, you can safeguard your fertility and the health of unborn children now by getting tested or treated.

How do STIs go away?

Getting diagnosed with an STI isn’t a life sentence — but it’s important to get treatment right away to prevent lasting effects. All STIs are treatable with medication and some are curable entirely. The type of treatment and the likelihood of it going away on its own depends on the germ causing the infection.

Parasitic infections

The most common curable STI is trichomoniasis, also called “trich.” Most people with this infection are asymptomatic. When symptoms do occur, they can take weeks or months after exposure to appear.

While trichomoniasis is treatable with antibiotics, reinfection is possible. To prevent this, experts recommend partners undergo treatment simultaneously.

partners discussing sti

Bacterial infections

Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are treatable with antibiotics. It’s important to get treatment as soon as you test positive and complete the entire treatment plan for these STIs.  

If left untreated, these bacterial infections can cause serious health complications like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). This can lead to infertility, ectopic pregnancies, and chronic pelvic pain. While medications can treat the infection, they can’t reverse organ damage already done. 

  • Chlamydia: This STI often has no symptoms, making it hard to catch and easy to spread. Certain common symptoms of chlamydia may be mistaken for a urinary tract infection (like pain with peeing or an increased need to pee). It’s important to get tested right away if you’ve been exposed or have new symptoms. With the proper treatment, chlamydia can be cleared within a week or two.

  • Gonorrhea: Symptoms are also rare for this STI, but they may show up in women as unusual vaginal discharge, pain, or bleeding. Gonorrhea is curable with antibiotics, but there are strains of the bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Take medications exactly as prescribed for the treatment of gonorrhea.

  • Syphilis: A syphilis infection progresses through stages, with initial symptoms first appearing two to 12 weeks after exposure. It may be more easily detectable than other bacterial STIs due to physical symptoms like sores, fatigue, and hair loss. While antibiotics effectively cure syphilis, early treatment is crucial to prevent its progression. Timely treatment helps avoid complications associated with advanced-stage syphilis, such as brain damage, heart disease, and blindness.

Viral infections

Viral STIs can be more complicated to manage due to their ability to establish long-term infections within the body. Unlike bacterial STIs, which can often be cured with antibiotics, viral STIs can’t typically be completely eliminated from the body. Instead, treatment focuses on managing symptoms, preventing the virus from replicating, and reducing the risk of transmission.

  • Herpes: Caused by the herpes simplex virus, genital herpes can be treated but not cured. The virus can cause outbreaks of blisters around the mouth or genitals, but many people have no symptoms. Treatment typically involves medications that shorten outbreaks while reducing the risk of spreading the virus to others. After symptoms are gone, the virus remains dormant in the body for life. 

  • HPV: Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the leading cause of cervical cancer. The World Health Organization estimates almost all sexually active people will be exposed to HPV at some point. It typically doesn’t have symptoms. There’s no treatment for the virus itself, but most of the time, HPV goes away on its own within two years. HPV vaccines can protect against the virus if given before exposure. 

  • HIV: Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is a sexually transmitted infection that weakens the immune system. If left untreated, HIV can turn into AIDS, a deadly disease. There’s no cure for HIV, but early treatment can prevent it from advancing. If you test positive for HIV, see a healthcare provider right away. They can give you medications that reduce the amount of virus in your body. By following a treatment plan under the care of a healthcare provider, most people get HIV under control within six months. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a medication that can help prevent HIV infection. It’s recommended for individuals who are at risk of contracting HIV through sexual activity or drug use.

How often should you be screened for STIs?

Talk to your OB/GYN about getting tested if you’re experiencing any unusual symptoms or have a known exposure to an STI. Below are the CDC’s STI screening recommendations for women. 

  • HIV: Sexually active adults between 13-64 should get an HIV test yearly.

  • Gonnorhea and chlamydia: All sexually active women under 25 should be tested yearly. Women over 25 with multiple sexual partners or an infected partner should be tested yearly. Pregnant women at risk for these STIs should be tested in the first trimester.

  • HPV: A pap smear screens for HPV to check your risk of cervical cancer. Women between 21-29 should get pap smears yearly. Women between 30-65 may have a pap smear every three years or an HPV test every five years.

woman discussing sti results with doctor

Can STIs impact your fertility?

If you’re pregnant or trying to conceive, discuss your STI history with your OB/GYN. Your doctor will screen you for certain STIs at your first prenatal visit. Pregnant women with active infections are monitored and retested throughout pregnancy. Check out the CDC’s recommendations for STI management during pregnancy here.

Certain STIs can pose significant risks in pregnancy or be passed along to a baby during birth, causing problems such as: 

  • Trichomoniasis — premature birth, low birth weight

  • Chlamydia — eye or lung infections

  • Gonorrhea — low birth weight, blindness

  • Syphilis — miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight, infant death

Even if you’re waiting to start a family, now is a good time to consider how STIs can affect you later on. By addressing STIs now, you can avoid complications like scar tissue, ectopic pregnancy, and infertility in the future.

Alexa Davidson is a registered nurse and freelance health writer. She’s written for various women’s health companies, covering topics like natural hormone balance, fertility, and disease prevention. On her own fertility journey, Alexa has experienced profound loss and is passionate about supporting others with similar experiences. When she’s not researching or writing, Alexa can be found in the kitchen, where her specialty is making healthy versions of comfort foods. Nashville Hot Tofu, anyone?