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STDs and STIs - Overview | September 17, 2021, 5:13 CDT

It Might Not Be Just a Rash
That skin irritation could be a sign of an STI.
Holly Ellis

Written by

Holly Ellis

You know your body better than anyone, so it seems obvious that you'd know if you had an sexually transmitted infection (STI) , right? Jenelle Pierce, executive director of The STI Project, begs to differ.

"The most common symptom of all STIs is no symptom at all," Pierce said. "So, regardless of gender, it's very common to have an infection and have no noticeable signs or symptoms of infection, which means, the only way to know is to get tested."

Most people blow off their need to receive consistent tests, instead believing in what Pierce calls a major misconception: "Only certain types of people contract STIs, and many people assume they're not one of them."

However, these infections don't discriminate. A 2008 estimate published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases placed the number of Americans with an STD at 110 million, more than a third of the American population at the time. Researchers particularly noted the prevalence of human papillomavirus (HPV), a typically asymptomatic disease.

'The most commonly overlooked STD is syphilis because sometimes you will get a rash that can appear on parts of the body other than the genitalia.'

However, human papillomavirus (HPV), along with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as herpes, chlamydia, hepatitis, trichomoniasis and gonorrhea, can cause genital and anal itching that can easily be confused for a common skin rash, such as contact dermatitis. It's usually not until the more serious complications arise that we suspect what's really going on.

"The most commonly overlooked STD is syphilis because sometimes you will get a rash that can appear on parts of the body other than the genitalia," said Anne Rompalo, M.D., a board member and medical consultant of the American Sexually Transmitted Disease Association.

For many patients, the aforementioned rash can be extremely itchy and painful, occurring in the secondary stages of syphilis. However, people with this problem are more likely to visit a dermatologist as opposed to their primary care physician.

Unless the dermatologist knows to ask about other symptoms associated with syphilis, some physicians will mistake the rash as psoriasis or a fungal infection. The frequent misdiagnosis of secondary syphilitic lesions has led many dermatologists to seek training to better understand the warning signs of syphilis, which include flat, solid and rounded lesions that appear primarily on the torso and never on the face, increased white count in blood tests, generalized weakness and fatigue, and the presence of rashes on the hands and feet.

The warning signs of an STI

While asymptomatic infections are common, your body will respond to the infection and if you monitor your body closely, even subtle symptoms can be easily detected. For women, changes in vaginal discharge and odor are most common because your vagina will increase fluid production in an effort to shed the infection.

For men, a burning sensation during urination or frequent urination are common causes for concern.

Regardless of gender, if you experience fatigue, swollen lymph nodes or a fever with the presence of a rash, this suggests your body is fighting an infection, and you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

This strategy is most successful when you understand your body's baseline of health. It's important to periodically monitor your body for symptoms and understand what your body feels like when it's healthy.

"Get screened [when you are] without symptoms as well as with symptoms," Rompalo advised. "Be aware of your body."

Don't wait to seek treatment

If you're concerned you may have an STI or may have been exposed, there's nothing to fear in seeking treatment. While stigmas surrounding STIs are prevalent in society, your doctor is a trained healthcare professional who will treat your infection without judgment. The most effective treatment for STIs that cause skin rashes are antibiotics, and when caught early, most patients experience a complete recovery with no permanent damage to their sexual and reproductive functions.

STIs don't have do-it-yourself solutions.

"There is no proven data that natural remedies work, or they would be in the STI guidelines," Rompalo said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health organizations are the most trusted sources of information on STI symptoms and treatments within the medical community, so if there is any doubt, or you're worried about the treatment for your infections, visit the CDC website.

Get tested often

Regardless of your current sexual habits, an STI can take time to show up in a blood test and display noticeable symptoms. Annual testing can help to identify an STI in its early stages. Furthermore, regardless of your ability to pay, most health clinics offer free STI screenings, and treatment is often provided on an income-based sliding scale.

There's no excuse to forgo tests. When you avoid testing, you are not only compromising your own health, but that of any future partners. For your own sake and theirs, take every sign your body gives you seriously.

Holly Ellis

Written by

Holly Ellis

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