Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are common. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 20 million new infections occur in the United States every year. Even more people remain undiagnosed.
One of the reasons many people don’t know they’re infected is that many STDs don’t have any symptoms. You can be infected with an STD for years without knowing it. Even when STDs don’t have obvious symptoms, they can still damage your body. Untreated, asymptomatic STDs can:
- increase your risk of infertility
- cause certain types of cancer
- spread to your sexual partners
- damage your unborn baby if you’re pregnant
- make you more susceptible to HIV infection
STDs catch many people off guard. However, it’s important to protect your sexual health. Be aware of any physical changes, however minor. Seek medical help to understand them.
Talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing the symptoms of an STD. They can treat your infection or provide you with medications to decrease the symptoms or problems you may have. 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 include the following:
Changes in urination
Burning or pain during urination can be a symptom of several STDs. However, it can also occur due to a urinary tract infection 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:
- genital herpes
Talk to your doctor if you notice any changes in urination. 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 symptom of an STD or another infection. It’s important to report this symptom to your 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 don’t improve or if they come back. You may have become re-infected by contact with your partner, particularly if they weren’t treated at the same time as you were. You may also need a different antibiotic.
Burning or itching in the vaginal area
STDs aren’t always the cause of burning or itching in the vaginal area. A bacterial or yeast infection can also cause vaginal burning or itching. However, you should talk to your doctor about any sensation changes in your vaginal area. Bacterial vaginosis and pubic lice can cause itching and need treatment.
Pain during sex
Occasional pain during sex is fairly common among women. Because of this, it can be 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 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 shouldn’t be strangely colored or smell bad. These can be symptoms of an STD. For example, discharge that occurs due to 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
- human papillomavirus (HPV)
- 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, they can still be infectious even when no sores are present.
Just because a sore has healed doesn’t mean the infection has gone away. An infection like herpes is lifelong. Once you become infected, the virus is present in your 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 your doctor.
Many causes of pelvic pain aren’t related to STDs. However, one cause of severe pelvic pain in women is pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which 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 nonspecific symptoms, which are symptoms that can be caused by a number of illnesses. They indicate that your body is responding to an infection. Nonspecific symptoms that can occur due to STDs and related conditions include:
- a fever
- weight loss
On their own, these symptoms will not cause your doctor to suspect you have an STD. If you think you are at risk for an STD, tell your doctor.
People at risk
Although anyone can contract an STD, data shows that young people and men who have sex with other men (MSM) are at greatest risk. Rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea are highest among young people aged 15-24, while 83 percent of men who contract syphilis are MSM.
Some STDs are curable while others aren’t. Talk to your doctor about treatments as well as preventive measures to ensure you don’t pass an STD while it still may be contagious.
Doctors can treat certain STDs. Examples include the following:
- They treat chlamydia infections with antibiotics.
- They can cure gonorrhea using antibiotics. However, some drug-resistant strains of the virus have emerged that don’t respond to traditional treatments.
- Taking antibiotics can cure syphilis. The medication your doctors chooses depends on the stage of syphilis.
- Doctors can prescribe the antifungal medications metronidazole or tinidazole to treat the condition.
Some STDs aren’t curable but treatments can reduce their symptoms. Herpes and HPV are two STDs in this category.
For herpes, doctors will prescribe medications to shorten an outbreak. These are known as antivirals. Some people take these medications on a daily basis to reduce the likelihood of an outbreak.
Doctors don’t have specific treatments for HPV. However, they may prescribe topical medications to reduce the incidence of itching and discomfort.
Even if you’ve been treated and no longer have an STD, you can contract the STD again. You aren’t immune from contracting the same STD again.
When to see your doctor
Doctors need to perform 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 you can get treatment earlier and you have less risk of 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. Symptoms can sometimes go away, but that doesn’t mean the STD has been cured. The STD can still be present and symptoms can return.
Screening isn’t a part of a standard health exam. You cannot know whether you have an STD unless you’ve asked for a test and received your results.