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Sexual Behaviors and Health

The terms sexually transmitted disease (STD) and sexually transmitted infection (STI) are usually used interchangeably. Some experts prefer the term "STI" because "disease" implies recognizable symptoms, and often these infections are present without symptoms. Others prefer "STD" because it is a more familiar term. ACT for Youth primarily uses STD, in keeping with New York State Department of Health practice.

ETR Blog: STI? STD? What's the Difference?

The STD-HIV Connection
Having an STD increases the odds of acquiring HIV. STDs cause sores and inflammation, making it easier for HIV to enter the body. STD treatment will not prevent or treat HIV, but will make HIV transmission less likely.
Zika: Sexually Transmitted
Zika continues to be a serious concern. Young people who live in or travel to areas with Zika outbreaks may not be aware that the virus can be transmitted sexually. Written for youth, this handout emphasizes the risks of sexual transmission.

Zika: What You Need to Know

Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Information on HIV is provided on the HIV/AIDS page.

Sexual health is more than the absence of disease; it's the presence of self-knowledge and body acceptance, motivation to stay healthy, the ability to communicate what we do and do not want, and much more. Because sexuality is such a complex dimension of development, communities, schools, and families all have roles to play in supporting young people's well-being. However, many youth grow up in environments that do not adequately prioritize their health, leaving young people to bear the burden of high rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and adolescent pregnancy.

On this page we provide information drawn from the presentation STD Basics for Health Educators by Dr. Taylor Starr, and from the CDC. View Dr. Starr's slides for more detail, including information about the prevalence of STDs in New York State counties.

STD Basics

Most common STDs are classified by the organism that causes the disease: bacteria, virus, or protozoa.
  • Bacterial infections can generally be treated with an antibiotic and "cured"; however, any damage done because of delayed or inadequate treatment may be irreversible, reinfection is common, and when there has been inadequate treatment or partners are not treated, the infection is passed back and forth.
  • Viral infections can be managed and minimized with antiviral medications, but not cured. They stay in the body for life.
  • Protozoan infections can be treated with medication and cured, but re-infection is common.
Transmission of STDs occurs primarily through unprotected anal and vaginal sex, skin-to-skin contact, and oral sex. A woman with an STD may transmit infection to a fetus, or pass it to a child during birth or breastfeeding. Some STDs are also spread through shared needles and syringes. While some STDs cause discharges or skin lesions, others are initially "silent" and symptomless but over time can lead to health crises such as infertility. The table below lists some of the effects of STDs; for more detail, see STD Basics for Health Educators.


Youth age 15-24 make up one-quarter of sexually experienced people in the U.S.; however, half of the 20 million new cases of STDs each year are among youth. Teens age 15-19 accounted for 22% of gonorrhea and 28% of chlamydia cases reported in 2013, and rates have risen since then (see the CDC report STDs in Adolescents and Young Adults). Men who have sex with men are also disproportionately affected, especially by syphilis and HIV.


Successful prevention extends beyond a narrow focus on individual responsibility: It addresses community and family risk and protective factors to create an environment that promotes adolescent health. At the individual level, youth can reduce their risk by:
  • Abstaining from vaginal, anal, and oral sex
  • Using condoms correctly every time
  • Using condoms and dental dams for oral sex
  • Obtaining the HPV vaccination
  • Practicing mutual monogamy
  • Reducing the number of sex partners
  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol, which can impair sexual decision making
  • Using a water-based lubricant with condoms (to decrease the chance that the condom will break)
  • Avoiding sex with anyone who has symptoms of an STD
  • Avoiding sex with anyone who uses IV drugs
  • Regular STD screening for all partners
  • Pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV

Screening and Treatment

When caught in early stages, most STDs are easily treated; those that cannot be cured can be managed. Screening is important for sexually active people, including adolescents. Often no visible signs or symptoms will be present and infection can be discovered only through screening. Tests are usually performed through simple urine or blood tests, or visual inspection if lesions or warts are present. Treatment in early stages typically involves antibiotics (oral and/or injection), antiviral medication, or topical medication. For more detail, see STD Basics for Health Educators.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Sexually Transmitted Diseases

New York State Department of Health: Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Young Men's Health: Sexually Transmitted Infections

Center for Young Women's Health: Sexually Transmitted Infections

It's Your (Sex) Life: Get Yourself Tested

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