Dermatologists on Front Lines of Treating Sexually Transmitted Diseases

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Dermatology specialist Dr. Sonoa Au with Advanced Dermatology PC offers tips on skin effects of common STDs.

Dr. Sonoa Au

Nobody welcomes the idea of having an STD, but if you or a loved one becomes infected, Dr. Au urges an open mind about which specialist to seek treatment

While it’s natural to think about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as affecting the genitals, it’s also true that numerous STDs show up on the skin – which means dermatologists are often on the front lines of treating these highly common infections, according to Sonoa Au, MD, of Advanced Dermatology P.C.

The United States has the highest rate of STDs in the world, with 20 million such infections occurring each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Half of those occur in people under age 24. Depending on the STD, the infection can be spread through any type of sexual activity involving the genitals, anus or mouth and can also be spread through contact with blood during sexual activity.

Historically, dermatology was a double specialty that encompassed both skin and so-called venereal disease, a precedent that shifted after the successful introduction of penicillin to treat STDs in the mid-20th century. Today, dermatologists are just as involved in STD treatment as gynecologists, urologists and infectious disease specialists, Dr. Au explains.

Tips on STDs that show up on the skin
Numerous STDs can appear on the skin, including in highly visible places such as the face, Dr. Au says. These STDs include:

  • Herpes simplex virus (HSV): Producing painful sores in the genital region or on the mouth, herpes can spread through intercourse or oral sex. An estimated 20% to 25% of Americans are infected with the type of herpes that causes genital lesions. “The issue with herpes is that the virus stays in the body forever and can be infectious even when the skin looks normal and people are taking medication to prevent outbreaks,” Dr. Au says.
  • Genital warts: Appearing weeks or months after the infection, genital warts are small, skin-colored bumps triggered by the human papilloma virus (HPV). They can appear on skin as well as internally in the vagina or cervix of infected women. “Genital warts don’t typically hurt or itch, but they can be embarrassing and unsightly. Moreover, certain strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer,” Dr. Au adds.
  • Syphilis: Appearing 3 to 6 weeks after sex, syphilis is caused by an infection with the Treponema pallidum bacterium and spread by direct sexual contact – including orally – with someone who has infectious syphilis lesions. “Syphilis doesn’t just affect the genitals,” Dr. Au explains. “It can also show up as large, open sores on your lips and mouth. Some sores may also appear on the tongue or inside the mouth, and untreated syphilis can even cause a reddish rash to appear all over the body.”
  • Chlamydia: Caused by the Chlamydia trachomatis bacterium, chlamydia can be spread by all forms of sex, including oral. About 1 in 20 people are thought to be affected. In addition to causing dramatic symptoms such as pain during urination, discharge from the penis or vagina, pain or inflammation in the testicles and bleeding after sex in women, chlamydia can also affect a highly visible area: the eye. “Aside from its classic symptoms, chlamydia can cause a form of pink eye and even cause blindness,” Dr. Au says. “This infection can occur from touching the eye after touching the genitals or genital secretions of someone infected with chlamydia.”

Treatments highly effective
Dermatologists are able to both diagnose and treat STDs, which are typically caused by either viruses or bacteria. Dr. Au highlights the most common types of treatment:

  •     Antibiotics: Often, a single dose of antibiotics is enough to eliminate many STDs caused by parasites or bacteria, including syphilis and chlamydia. But other antibiotic courses run longer, and it’s crucial to take every single dose of the medication until it’s finished, Dr. Au says. “Also, it’s necessary to abstain from sex until you’ve completed treatment and any sores have healed.”
  •     Antiviral drugs: These prescription drugs can’t cure sexually transmitted viruses such as herpes and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), but they can significantly affect the course of disease. Herpes sufferers experience fewer relapses if they take daily suppressive therapy, Dr. Au says, though it will still be possible to transmit the virus to a partner. “The earlier you begin treatment, the more effective it is and the fewer effects you’ll experience,” she notes.

Nobody welcomes the idea of having an STD, but if you or a loved one becomes infected, Dr. Au urges an open mind about which specialist to seek treatment. “Dermatologists are extremely well-versed in STD care and we have particular expertise in its skin effects, which can be pervasive,” she says. “Consulting with a dermatologist should be an action of first resort if you’re dealing with an STD.”

Sonoa Au, M.D., has a special interest in laser and cosmetic dermatology, in addition to general dermatology.

Advanced Dermatology P.C. and the Center for Laser and Cosmetic Surgery (New York & New Jersey) is one of the leading dermatology centers in the nation, offering highly experienced physicians in the fields of cosmetic and laser dermatology as well as plastic surgery and state-of-the-art medical technologies. http://www.advanceddermatologypc.com.

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