Understanding Treatment for Sexually Transmitted Disease

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on January 26, 2022

If you or your sex partner has unprotected sex with anyone else, you are at risk for getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Ask your doctor to test you for STDs during your annual physical, even if you have no symptoms. If you test positive, your sexual partners will need treatment. It may be embarrassing, but you must tell them they have been exposed. It is a matter of life and death.

STDs may be detected during a physical exam; through Pap smears; and in tests of blood, urine, and genital and anal secretions.

Don't try to treat an STD yourself. These diseases are contagious and serious. You must see a doctor.

Bacterial STDs can be cured with antibiotics if treatment begins early enough. Viral STDs cannot be cured, but you can manage symptoms with medications. There is a vaccine against hepatitis B, but it will not help if you already have the disease.

If you are given an antibiotic to treat an STD, it is important that you take all of the drug prescribed to you, even if the symptoms go away. Also, do not take someone else's medication to treat your infection; it may make the infection more difficult to treat.

Here are some specific treatments:

HIV/AIDS: Since AIDS is not curable, treatment focuses on keeping HIV levels in check. Antiretroviral drugs are the standard therapy for HIV infection, and usually you will be given several drugs to take, a so-called drug "cocktail." The question of when to begin antiretroviral therapy is still debated. Some doctors believe in an early start to better manage the virus, while others believe it is better to wait, because the drugs can cause unpleasant side effects and drug resistance may develop. Talk to your doctor about when you should begin antiretroviral therapy.

Chlamydia and Gonorrhea: These STDs are treated with antibiotics. You should begin taking them if tests show you have the infection or if you have been exposed to it, even though you may not have symptoms. Your sex partners will also have to be treated regardless of whether they have symptoms. Certain strains of gonorrhea have become resistant to some antibiotics, so you may have to take more than one drug to fight gonorrhea. Failure to treat these infections can result in permanent damage to your reproductive organs and a woman's being unable to get pregnant. If you have been treated for chlamydia, get tested again after three months, even if your partner has been treated.

Syphilis: Penicillin is the preferred treatment for syphilis. Early treatment is crucial to prevent the bacteria from spreading to and damaging other organs.

Genital herpes: Once you are infected with genital herpes, the virus remains in your body for life. After the first outbreak, herpes may flare several times per year, but these flares may lessen over time. Antiviral medication, such as acyclovir (Zovirax), famciclovir (Famvir), and valacyclovir (Valtrex) can help reduce the length and severity of both the initial and subsequent outbreaks. If you have outbreaks often, you may want to use suppressive therapy. In suppressive therapy, your doctor prescribes medicine for you to take every day, to prevent you from getting an outbreak.

Genital warts: There is no standard of treatment for genital warts. Most genital warts will disappear without treatment, so your doctor may choose to do nothing. However, you will still carry the virus that causes warts and can still transmit it to sex partners. If you do choose to treat the warts, you have several options. Freezing the warts or applying medication directly to them are often the first choices. If the warts do not respond to these options, surgery may be necessary to remove them. Remember, though, treatment does not rid you of the infection, and you can still transmit it to others.

Hepatitis B: The goal of hepatitis B treatment is to stop liver damage by preventing the virus from spreading. There are now five drugs approved for use in hepatitis B in adults and promising new drugs on the horizon. They are adefovir (Hepsera), entecavir (Baraclude), interferon alpha, lamivudine (Epivir), pegylated interferon (Pegasys), telbivudine (Tyzeka or Sebivo), and tenofovir (Viread). Each has pros and cons that you should discuss with your doctor. If you develop significant liver damage, a liver transplant may be necessary.

Trichomoniasis: Infection by this organism is treated with the drug metronidazole, and the cure rate is about 90%. Pregnant women can take the drug. Partners should also be treated to ensure there is no reinfection. Also, it is important to be retested after three months to make sure the infection is completely cleared. This should happen even if the partner was treated.

Show Sources


American Academy of Family Physicians. 

Centers for Disease Control National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention. 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Hepatitis B Foundation.

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