STD Awareness: “What Are the Symptoms of an STD?”

“I was treated for chlamydia, but my girlfriend feels fine, so she doesn’t need to get tested.”

“The only time I don’t use condoms is for oral sex, and everything’s been OK ‘down there,’ so getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases would be pointless.”

It’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms of a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Being savvy about symptoms can push you to get tested right away if you notice that something is amiss. However, being symptom-free can lull you into a false sense of security, especially if you’ve engaged in sexual activities that could have exposed you to an infectious agent. The fact of the matter is that many people with STDs have no symptoms at all. As they say, “The most common symptom of an STD is … no symptom.” Let’s take a look at some common STDs.

The most common symptom of an STD is no symptom.

Bacterial Infections

Bacterial STDs are curable with antibiotics. They include chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis — all of which can be asymptomatic, and all of which can have severe complications when they are not treated in time.

Chlamydia: Around 3 million Americans are infected with chlamydia annually, and the infection is especially common among young people (less than 25 years of age). Chlamydia can infect the penis, vagina, cervix, anus, urethra, eye, or throat. You can be afflicted with a range of symptoms: pain or a burning feeling while urinating; vaginal, cervical, or penile discharge; swelling around the anus, testicles, or vagina; and more.

However, you’re much more likely not to experience any symptoms at all — most people with chlamydia are unaware they have it. Three out of four women with chlamydia have no symptoms, and half of men with chlamydia have no symptoms. Left untreated, chlamydia can become a serious health threat. Long-term complications might lead to fertility problems and arthritis.

Gonorrhea: Colloquially known as the clap, gonorrhea can infect the penis, vagina, cervix, anus, urethra, or throat — and this happens to about 600,000 people in the United States annually. When symptoms appear, they can include vaginal or penile discharge; pain or burning feeling while urinating; an increased urge to urinate; and more.

And, as with chlamydia, gonorrhea often has no symptoms at all. If you have a penis, there is a 1 in 10 chance you’ll have no symptoms. If you have a vagina, however, the chance that you’ll be asymptomatic jumps into the 80 percent range.

The complications of untreated gonorrhea are similar to those of chlamydia, and include fertility problems and arthritis. If you are sexually active — especially if you haven’t always practiced safe sex — it’s important to be regularly screened for STDs like gonorrhea and chlamydia.

Syphilis: Syphilis can infect the vagina, anus, urethra, or penis, as well as the lips and mouth. Each year, about 36,000 Americans are infected with syphilis. A syphilis infection can occur in three stages: the primary stage, the secondary stage, and the late stage. Between stages, it remains “latent,” meaning that there are no symptoms at all.

Symptoms can be very severe, including a painless sore or wet ulcer, rashes, and flu-like symptoms. However, syphilis often has no symptoms or has such mild symptoms that they go unnoticed. One out of 3 people with untreated syphilis suffers serious damage to the nervous system, heart, brain, or other organs, and death may result. This can occur one to 20 years after the initial infection. Syphilis can also be easily cured with antibiotics, but if you’re not treated in time, permanent damage could be done.

Viral Infections

Once you’re infected with a virus, it can remain in your body for the duration of your life. Some viruses, like HIV and the herpes simplex virus, can be managed with medication but can’t be cured. Other viruses, like human papillomavirus (HPV), can’t be cured by medicine, but can be eliminated by your immune system. If your immune system can’t clear these viruses, however, they will become chronic infections just like HIV and herpes.

Genital warts: Common symptoms of genital warts include flesh-colored, soft-to-the-touch bumps on the skin, which can take on a variety of different appearances. They are usually, though not always, painless, and might itch. When symptoms appear, they usually do so between six weeks to six months after infection — though it could take longer.

Warts are caused by certain strains of HPV, the virus that is most famous for its connection to cervical cancer. Luckily, the HPV strains that cause warts are different from the cancer-causing strains. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Most sexually active adults will get HPV at some point in their lives, though most will never know it because HPV infection usually has no signs or symptoms.” This includes genital warts — since most people with the virus have no symptoms, they can transmit it to their partners unknowingly.

In the absence of symptoms, the wart-causing HPV strain is not tested for in standard STD screenings. Receiving the HPV vaccine is the best preventive measure for anyone who is or is considering becoming sexually active. Consistent and correct use of condoms can lower your chance of acquiring HPV. The female condom is even more effective in protecting against HPV because it covers more surface area than regular condoms. However, barrier methods are limited by how much of the skin’s surface they cover.

Herpes: Caused by herpes simplex virus (HSV), herpes can affect the genitals — genital herpes — or the mouth — oral herpes, also known as cold sores or fever blisters. Up to 80 percent of us have been infected with HSV-1, the herpes strain most commonly associated with cold sores — but only a minority of us actually experience symptoms. The rest of us infected with HSV-1 in that area of the body carry the virus without symptoms, often without even knowing we have it.

HSV-2 is most commonly associated with genital herpes, though it can be caused by HSV-1 as well, often spreading via oral sex. The most common symptom of genital herpes is a cluster of blistery sores — usually on the vagina, vulva, cervix, penis, buttocks, or anus. Genital herpes is not as common as oral herpes — but it is still very widespread. About 1 out of 4 American adults has genital herpes, but most of them don’t know it because they never had, or noticed, symptoms.

HIV: Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome. HIV attacks the immune system, interfering with our body’s ability to protect us against disease. AIDS is the most advanced stage of an HIV infection. Each year in the United States, about 40,000 people are infected with HIV. Many don’t know it.

It is possible to develop HIV symptoms shortly after initial infection, and they might include swollen glands in the throat, armpit, or groin; slight fever; headaches; fatigue; and muscle aches. These symptoms may last for only a few weeks and might be confused for a general under-the-weather feeling. Afterward, there are usually no HIV symptoms for more than a decade. It is also possible not to develop these initial symptoms at all.

You can be infected with HIV and feel perfectly fine for years. During this time, you can unknowingly transmit the virus to other people, and will also forgo medical treatment that can significantly improve your life expectancy. Once thought of as a death sentence, an HIV infection can now be managed as a chronic disease, but to be treated for it, first you have to know you have it!

Your local Planned Parenthood health center can provide screening and treatment for STDs.

Click here to check out other installments of our monthly STD Awareness series!