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Skirting stds SKIRTING STDs
It seems like when AIDS came on the scene in the early 1980s we pretty much forgot about all the other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). But they didn't forget about us. STDs are a hidden epidemic, newly infecting 12 million Americans a year. They haven't gone away.
Here's a roster of the heavy hitters.
Herpes simplex 2. This version of herpes may have found a home by now in as many as one in four sexually active men, two-thirds of whom don't know they have it. When the characteristic open sores show themselves in the genital area, that's when you can usually catch it-or give it. "But you can also actually pass it on to a sex partner when a lesion is nowhere in sight," says Dr. William Kassler of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "That's what has everybody concerned. We think it's what's fueling the herpes epidemic."
Chlamydia. It's the fastest-spreading STD, infecting as many as four million men and women a year. It's a particularly insidious one, too, since men don't have symptoms about a quarter of the time, and women three-quarters of the time. When symptoms do show up, you'll probably experience either a genital discharge, painful urination, or both. Chlamydia also, though rarely, can cause painful or swollen testicles. Chlamydia is a bacterial infection, so it's curable with antibiotics-if you know that you have it.
Genital warts. Its given name is human papillomavirus, or HPV. The symptoms are what its nickname implies-warts on the anus, penis, or scrotum. About a million Americans join the HPV club each year. They never leave it.
Syphilis. This one has been rockin' longer than Mick and Keith. It's one of the more manageable STDs these days since it usually makes its presence known via a painless chancre on the penis and exits promptly with antibiotics. Ignore it, however, and it can result in blindness, heart disease, and death.
Gonorrhea. The symptoms are similar to those of chlamydia. Also like chlamydia, the symptoms sometimes fail to show up. The clap gets about 800,000 Americans each year but succumbs nicely to antibiotics.
Hepatitis B. Like HIV, it's found in blood, semen, and vaginal secretions and is spread through sexual contact and shared needles. Unlike HIV, it usually clears itself up in a month or two. But this kind of hepatitis needs medical attention because possible liver damage puts you at risk for cirrhosis or liver cancer.
You can keep from getting any of these STDs by following much the same safe-sex guidelines that you do for AIDS-careful partner selection, mutual full disclosure before sex, and a strict adherence to condom use, says Dr. Kassler.
And for most STDs, you have an option you don't have with AIDS-getting rid of it. "The thing to do is recognize the symptoms of STDs, go to a doctor, and get them treated," Dr. Kassler says. "The earlier you get them taken care of, the safer you are."
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