How Does STD Infection Increase HIV Risk?

Male patient in gown waiting on exam table
Thomas Barwick/Taxi/Getty Images

Question: How Does STD Infection Increase HIV Risk?

Answer: STD infections can make you susceptible to other STD infections in a number of different ways

Numerous STDs are not only dangerous in and of themselves; they actually increase the risk of becoming infected with other STDs, including HIV. HIV-positive individuals with STDs are also more infectious – they're three to five times more likely than individuals without STDs to transmit HIV during sexual activity.

How Do STDs Increase HIV Risk?

STDs increase a person's risk of acquiring HIV in one of two ways.

  1. They can cause lesions on the skin, making it easier for HIV to enter the body. Some STDs that increase HIV risk in this way include:
  2. They can cause inflammation, which is triggered by the immune system. Since HIV prefers to infect immune cells, any disease that causes a increase in these cells also will make it easier for a person to become infected with HIV. STDs that increase HIV risk in this way include:

Of course, many STDs increase a person's susceptibility to HIV in both ways. It is therefore extremely important for anyone who has an STD to be treated. It can help to protect their long-term health. As can, unsurprisingly, practicing safer sex. Reliably, and properly, using condoms for all sexual activity will greatly reduce an individual's risk of acquiring HIV.

Regular Screening Is Essential

It is extremely important for individuals with STDs to be treated. However, before a person can be treated, they first need to be diagnosed. For that, regular screening is essential. Most sexually transmitted diseases are asymptomatic. With no symptoms, the only way to ensure a timely diagnosis is screening.

Otherwise, an infection can linger under the radar for many years. That is why it's not enough just to go for STD testing when you have symptoms. Every sexually active adult should consider being screened for STDs on a regular basis. This not only reduces HIV risk, it also lowers the risk of STD related infertility, a problem that does not only affect women.

Examining Overlapping Biological and Behavioral Risk

It's worth noting that people who have one STD tend to be at risk for other STDs for behavioral and social reasons as well as biological ones. If someone has gotten an STD, there's a good chance that they are having unprotected sex, which is the biggest risk factor for getting an STD. There is also a reasonable chance that they may be part of a community or sexual network that has a higher than average prevalence of STDs. Unfortunately, that last factor is a big one in STD risk. Individuals often meet sexual partners within their own social network or community. If that community has a lot of STDs, their risk of acquiring one is substantially higher than for someone having sex in a low risk community.

That's why community level prevention and treatment is so important. The hidden epidemic is bigger than individual sexual health.

Amirkhanian YA. Social networks, sexual networks and HIV risk in men who have sex with men. Curr HIV/AIDS Rep. 2014 Mar;11(1):81-92. doi: 10.1007/s11904-013-0194-4.
CDC HIV FAQ: "Is there a connection between HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases?" Accessed 11-18-07

Continue Reading