Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are incredibly common. Every year, more than 19 million new infections occur in the United States, according to the Office on Women’s Health. Even more people remain undiagnosed. So many people have STDs without knowing it that scientists refer to these diseases as “the hidden epidemic.”
One of the reasons many people don’t know they are infected is that many STDs do not have any symptoms. STDs that are frequently asymptomatic include:
- human papillomavirus (HPV)
- genital herpes may be asymptomatic, but not always
- pubic lice
People may be infected with these STDs for years without knowing it. Even when STDs do not have obvious symptoms, they can still damage your body. Untreated, asymptomatic STDs increase the risk of infertility. They can cause certain types of cancer. They can spread to your sexual partners. They can damage a fetus. In addition, some may make you more susceptible to HIV infection.
Because you may be infected with STDs without any symptoms, regular screening is incredibly important. If you are sexually active, it’s important to talk to your doctor about whether you should be screened for STDs. You cannot assume that your doctor will automatically screen you. Screening is not a part of a standard health exam.
You cannot know whether you have an STD unless you have asked for a test and received your results.
STDs catch many people off guard. It’s not just the lack of obvious symptoms. Many patients are in denial that they may have caught a stigmatized disease. Therefore, they may ignore potential STD symptoms and hope they’ll go away. However, it’s important to protect your sexual health. Be aware of any physical changes, however minor. Seek medical help to understand them.
It may seem embarrassing to talk to your doctor about STD symptoms, but don’t let that stop you. Chances are they have heard much worse, and it is your physician’s responsibility to care for you without judgment or reproach. They can treat your infection. They can also counsel you on how to reduce your STD risk in the future.
STD symptoms can range from mild to extreme. Some of the most common symptoms of STDs are described below.
Changes in Urination
Burning or pain during urination can be a symptom of several STDs. However, it can also be caused by a urinary tract infection (UTI) or kidney stones. Therefore it’s important to get tested if you have pain or other symptoms during urination.
STDs that can cause pain during urination include:
Changes in urination should be treated by a doctor. You should also note the color of your urine to check for the presence of blood.
Unusual Discharge from the Penis
Discharge from the penis is usually a sign of an STD or other infection. It’s important to report this symptom to a doctor as soon as possible for diagnosis. STDs that can cause discharge include:
These infections are generally treatable with antibiotics. However, it’s important to take your medication exactly as prescribed.
You should return to your doctor if your symptoms do not improve or if they come back. You may have been re-infected by your partner, particularly if they were not treated at the same time you were. You may also need a different antibiotic.
Burning or Itching in the Vaginal Area
Burning or itching in the vaginal area isn’t always caused by an STD. It can also be caused by irritation or a yeast infection. However, unusual sensations in your vaginal area should be reported to a doctor. Bacterial vaginosis and pubic lice can cause itching and need treatment.
Pain During Sex
Occasional pain during sex is fairly common among women. It’s one of the most overlooked symptoms of an STD. If you experience pain during sex, you should discuss it with your doctor. This is particularly true if the pain:
- is new
- has changed
- started with a new sexual partner
- began after a change in sexual habits
Pain during ejaculation can also be an STD symptom in men.
Abnormal Vaginal Discharge or Bleeding
Abnormal vaginal discharge can be a symptom of a number of infections. Not all of these are sexually transmitted. Sexually associated infections, such as yeast and bacterial vaginosis (BV) can also cause discharge.
If you have changes in your vaginal discharge, talk to your doctor. Some vaginal discharge is normal throughout the menstrual cycle. However, it should not be strangely colored or smell bad. These things can be signs of an STD. For example, discharge caused by trichomoniasis is often green, frothy, and foul smelling. Gonorrhea discharge may be yellow and tinged with blood.
If you have bleeding between periods, combined with discharge, make an appointment with your doctor. These symptoms can also be a sign of cancer.
Bumps or Sores
Bumps and sores may be the first noticeable signs of STDs including:
- genital herpes
- molloscum contagiosum
If you have strange bumps or sores on or near your mouth or genitals, talk to your doctor. You should mention these sores to your doctor even if they go away before your visit. Herpes sores, for example, typically go away within a week or two. However, you can still be infectious even when no sores are present.
Just because a sore has healed does not mean the infection has gone away. An infection like herpes is lifelong. From the patient’s perspective, there are “flare-ups,” followed by asymptomatic periods, but once infected, the virus is present in the body at all times.
Pain in the Pelvic or Abdominal Region
Pelvic pain can be a sign of a number of conditions. If the pain is unusual or intense, it’s a good idea to discuss it with a physician.
Many causes of pelvic pain are not related to STDs. However, one cause of severe pelvic pain in women is pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). PID occurs when asymptomatic STDs have gone untreated. Bacteria ascend into the uterus and abdomen. There, infection causes inflammation and scarring. This can be extremely painful and, in rare cases, fatal. PID is one of the leading causes of preventable infertility in women.
STDs are infections. Just like other infections, they can cause many non-specific symptoms. Non-specific symptoms are symptoms that can be caused by a number of illnesses. They are a sign of your body’s response to an infection. Non-specific symptoms that can be caused by STDs and related conditions include:
- weight loss
On their own, these symptoms will not cause your doctor to suspect an STD. If you think you are at risk for an STD, tell your doctor.
Many STD symptoms can be mistaken for those of other conditions. You cannot diagnose these symptoms yourself. Even doctors need tests to figure out if you have an STD, another infectious disease, or a different condition altogether. It’s important to visit your doctor as soon as you have symptoms. Early diagnosis means earlier treatment and less risk for complications.
Another reason to visit your doctor as soon as you have symptoms is that it’s easier to diagnose many STDs when symptoms are present. Sometimes symptoms will go away, but that does not mean the STD has been cured. Dormant STDs are still present and symptoms can return.
Do not convince yourself that your symptoms can be explained away or that STDs do not happen to people like you. Every sexually active person is at risk.
Talk to your healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns related to STDs. If you are uncomfortable seeing your personal physician, there are other options. Many areas have STD clinics where you can seek out confidential care. Contact your local health department to find out if there are free or low-cost STD services in your area.
Planned Parenthood also offers STD screening and treatment for both sexes. Prices are scaled to your income.
STDs are nothing to be ashamed of. Like any other infection, they can be treated or managed.