Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) catch many people unawares, as these infections often do not have any obvious symptoms and patients are in denial that they may have caught a stigmatized disease from a potentially unfaithful partner. However, if they go untreated, STIs can cause ongoing problems. While some infections cause just a small amount of discomfort, others can lead to infertility, increased risk of cancers, and place a fetus at risk if an infected woman is pregnant. To protect one’s sexual health, it is important to be aware of any physical changes, however minor, and to seek medical help when necessary. The old adage “better safe than sorry” is advice worth following. Do not be afraid to see the physician and speak honestly about your symptoms. Chances are they have heard much worse and will be delighted to help treat the infection and counsel you on risk reduction practices.
Some of the most common symptoms of sexually transmitted infections include:
Changes in Urination
A urinary tract infection or kidney stones can cause a painful burning sensation during urination, as well as a need to go to the bathroom more frequently. However, gonorrhea can cause similar symptoms. Also, note the color of the urine to check for the presence of blood.
Unusual Discharge from the Penis
As embarrassing as it may be to tell a doctor that you have noticed yellow or green discharge coming from your penis, the sooner it can be tested and diagnosed, the sooner it can be treated.
Burning or Itching in the Vaginal Area.
This might be something as simple as a reaction to a new laundry detergent. Alternatively, it can be a symptom of public lice or a yeast infection.
Pain During Sex
Since occasional pain during sex is fairly common among women, it is one of the most overlooked symptoms of an STI. If the pain begins after a change of sexual partner or a change of sexual habits, seek medical advice, just to be safe.
Abnormal Vaginal Discharge or Vaginal Bleeding
Abnormal discharge can be a symptom of a range of infections, from excess yeast to Chlamydia. Different infections cause different types of discharge. Yellowish discharge (sometimes tinged with blood) can indicate gonorrhea. Greenish or frothy foul-smelling discharge is often a sign of trichomoniasis. These symptoms are particularly important to get evaluated because bleeding and abnormal discharge can also be a sign of cancer.
Bumps or Sores
These are often the first noticeable sign of herpes. Sores or tiny red bumps may appear around the mouth, on the tip of the penis, or in the vaginal area. They typically disappear after a week or two, but will reoccur with varying amounts of frequency. Syphilis also causes sores within the primary stage of infection.
Pain in the Pelvic or Abdominal Regions
If the pain is not in harmony with your usual menstrual cycle, it might be indicative of pelvic inflammatory disease, a urinary tract infection, or some other sexual health issue that is best treated if it is diagnosed soon after symptoms start.
Chills and Fever
What you dismiss as a seasonal cold or the flu could also be a sign of pelvic inflammatory disease, which, if left untreated, can lead to fertility problems and risk of ectopic pregnancy. Also, chills and flu-like symptoms can occur after infection with HIV, so it is important to consider your exposure if you feel these symptoms.
Other Common Symptoms
Other symptoms of an STI might include tiredness, rashes, and weight loss, all possible markers of a long-term infection.
As you can see, many of these symptoms can be mistaken for other conditions—this is why STIs often remain ignored and go untreated. An infection may cause you to experience a number of symptoms or none, and so awareness of one’s own body is to be encouraged. The more familiar you are with what is normal for your body, the more aware you will be of changes and potential problems, ensuring that testing and treatment can be provided when needed.
Do not convince yourself that your symptoms can be explained away or that sexually transmitted infections do not happen to people like you. STIs are a real part of sexual life in all communities, and physicians are well aware of the best options for treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns related to STIs. If you are uncomfortable talking to a pediatrician or your family physician, a trusted adult should be able to lead you to appropriate resources.