What do I need to know about STDs?
STDs are spread through sexual contact — like oral, anal, and vaginal sex. STDs are common, and often don’t have symptoms. There are ways to prevent and treat STDs.
Do I need to worry about STDs?
You may have heard of sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes, HIV, and others. STDs are super common — most people will get one at some point in their life. And young people between the ages of 15-24 have a higher chance of getting an STD than anyone else. Some of the most common STDs (like gonorrhea and chlamydia) can be cured with antibiotics, and aren’t dangerous if you get treatment right away. But others can cause serious health problems, especially if you don’t get treatment.
Even though STDs are common, sometimes people feel a lot of shame and embarrassment when they get one. But STDs are like any other infection that gets passed from one person to another — sex just happens to be the way they’re passed.
So if you do get a STD, it doesn’t mean you’re “dirty” or a bad person. You’re just one of the millions of people who got an infection. And like other infections, there are medicines to help you stay healthy if you do get an STD. There are also things you can do to protect yourself from STDs.
How do I prevent STDs?
The only 100% guaranteed way to avoid STDs is to not have any kind of sexual contact — like vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or skin-to-skin genital touching — with another person. No sex = no STDs. But if you do have sex, safer sex lowers your chances of getting an STD.
Safer sex means using condoms, internal condoms, or dental dams. These barriers help block fluids and some skin-to-skin touching that can pass STDs. You can use condoms for vaginal sex, anal sex, and oral sex on a penis. You can use internal condoms for vaginal sex and anal sex. And you can use dental dams for oral sex on a vulva or anus. Read more about using condoms and dental dams.
Not having sex at all, or using condoms if you do have sex, are 2 of the best ways to prevent STDs. But there are other things you can do too:
Get tested for STDs. If you do have an infection, you can get treatment so you stay healthy and avoid spreading the STD to other people.
Talk to your partner. Good communication, especially about safer sex, can help you build trust and bring you closer together.
Choose sexual activities that are less risky. There are lots of ways you can be sexual and stay safe. Masturbation, dry-humping (rubbing genitals with clothes on), talking sexy, and cuddling are just some of the things that you can do that won’t spread STDs.
If your partner doesn’t want to use condoms or help prevent STDs, then they’re not respecting you. If someone really cares about you, they’ll want you to be safe. And it’s not OK for anyone to pressure you to do anything sexual you're not comfortable with, even if you really like or love each other. Get tips on talking to your partner about safer sex.
How are STDs spread?
STDs are usually spread by having vaginal sex, anal sex, or oral sex without using protection (like a condom). But it’s not always that simple — there are many STDs, and different STDs are spread in different ways.
Some infections are spread through body fluids like semen (cum), vaginal fluids, and blood. Others can also be passed when the skin of your mouth or genitals rubs against the skin of someone else’s.
So basically: any type of sexual contact that involves body fluids or touching genitals can put you at risk for STDs. That’s why using condoms and other barriers (like dental dams) makes sex safer — they help block skin and fluids that can spread STDs.
Vaginal sex (penis-in-vagina) and anal sex (penis-in-butt) are especially risky if you don’t use a condom — using a condom makes them much safer. Oral sex (mouth on a vulva, penis, or anus) can also spread certain STDs (like herpes or HPV). Using condoms and dental dams for oral sex can help protect you and your partner.
Some STDs (like HIV) can also be spread by sharing needles (like for drugs, piercings, or tattoos), or to a baby during childbirth or breastfeeding. But you can’t get STDs from casual contact like hugging, holding hands, or toilet seats. You can only get an STD from contact with semen, vaginal fluids, blood, or skin-to-skin genital touching.
STDs can’t appear out of thin air - you can only get an STD from someone who already has one. But many people who have an STD don’t know it, because a lot of times there aren’t any symptoms. That’s why getting tested for STDs and using condoms is so important.
How can I tell if someone has an STD?
The ONLY way to know for sure if you or someone else has an STD is to get tested. Most of the time, STDs don’t even have any symptoms. So just looking at someone’s penis or vulva can’t tell you whether they have an STD. People with STDs may look and feel totally normal — but they can still give the infection to someone else.
Sometimes STDs do cause problems that you might notice. Get tested for STDs if you have any of these symptoms in or near your genitals:
weird bumps, sores, or rashes
itching and/or burning
Pain or burning when you pee
discharge from your penis
vaginal discharge that has a different smell, color, or texture
bleeding from your genitals (that isn’t your period)
These symptoms don’t always mean you have an STD. Other health problems can cause similar symptoms. For example, burning while you pee could be a UTI. Weird discharge might be a yeast infection. The only way to know for sure what’s going on is to visit your doctor or a Planned Parenthood health center.