Signs and Symptoms of Common Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are spread from person to person during sexual contact, including oral, anal and vaginal sex. STIs are common, with more than 1 million transmitted every day worldwide. They may take the form of bacteria, viruses or parasites, and they can turn into sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that can dramatically impact your health and quality of life.
STDs can be very serious: In the United States, at least 20,000 cases of female infertility a year are attributed to the long-term effects of undetected STDs, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.
If you're sexually active, practicing safer sex is an important preventive measure. Knowing the signs and symptoms of STDs and undergoing screening and treatment as needed are the best ways to avoid complications associated with these diseases.
A closer look at STDs
There are more than 20 types of STDs. Common sexually transmitted diseases and their originating infection types include:
- Genital herpes (virus)
- Chlamydia (bacteria)
- Gonorrhea (bacteria)
- Human papillomavirus, or HPV (virus)
- Trichomoniasis (parasite)
- Pubic lice (parasite)
- Syphilis (bacteria)
- HIV/AIDS (virus)
Risk factors for STDs
Anyone who is sexually active can contract an STD, but certain factors increase your risk. Examples include having unprotected sex (vaginal, anal or oral), improper use of condoms, having more than one sexual partner, a history of STDs, sharing needles, and drug or alcohol abuse. Further, a mother can pass an STD to her baby during pregnancy or delivery.
Using a condom correctly, not having sexual intercourse or having just one monogamous partner who has tested negative for STDs are among the best ways to reduce your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease.
Signs & symptoms
If you're sexually active, look for the following signs and early symptoms that could indicate you may have an STD, but talk to your doctor because these can overlap with other health issues:
- Burning or painful urination
- Genital or anal bumps, warts or sores
- Penis discharge
- Crawling lice or eggs in pubic hair
- Unusual vaginal odor or discharge
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Fever or rash
- Lower abdominal pain
- Sore or swollen lymph nodes
- Cervical or rectal cancer
If you have an STD, you may not have any symptoms—at least not at first. Symptoms can appear within a few days after exposure, or it could be several years before you notice any problems. That's why routine screening—especially if you're at risk of contracting an STD—is important.
Diagnosing the problem
To determine if you have an STD, your doctor will review your medical history, ask about your lifestyle and symptoms, and complete a physical exam. In women, physicians may complete a pelvic exam and a Pap test to obtain cervical cells and screen them for cancer, which may be caused by human papillomavirus or HPV, a virus.
Your doctor may also use blood tests, urine samples or fluid samples from open genital sores to diagnose certain types of STDs.
Some STDs are curable, some go away on their own over time and others you may have indefinitely. Common STD treatments include antibiotics, antiviral medications and surgery.
Taking antibiotics can cure many types of STDs caused by parasitic or bacterial infections, including syphilis, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis and chlamydia. Follow your doctor's instructions when taking antibiotics, including completing the course even if the disease's signs and symptoms are gone.
There's no cure for HIV or herpes, but taking antiviral medications can help. For herpes, antivirals may help reduce symptoms; for HIV, antivirals are very important to lower the viral load and reduce the risk of transmission to your sexual partner. However, you can still spread the virus to others even while taking medication. Talk to your doctor for management of antiviral therapy to determine a treatment plan that best fits your personal health.
In the case of cancer caused by HPV, your doctor may recommend a surgical procedure to remove cancerous tissue and prevent cancer from spreading to other parts of your body.
About STD screening
Follow your doctor's instructions regarding how often to get screened for STDs. Schedule a screening at the first sign of STD symptoms or at least once yearly, especially if you are sexually active and at particular risk. Follow safer sex practices to reduce your risk of contracting an STD and know what symptoms to watch for to optimize your health and wellness.