The Most Common Signs and Symptoms of STDs
Originally Published September 05, 2019 on Sex and Love | By Gabrielle Kassel
Let’s face it: After having sex with someone new or sans protection, most of us have hit up Dr. Google searching for the most common signs of STDs, trying to figure out if we have one or not. If you’re in a panic right now doing exactly that, first, take a deep breath.
It’s true that you actually have reason to be worried: “They can be contracted through any sexual contact including oral, vaginal, and anal sex, and not only are they very common, but they’re also on the rise,” says Barry Witt M.D., reproductive endocrinologist and medical director at WINFertility and Greenwich Fertility in Connecticut. In fact, nearly 20 million new STIs occur every year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yep, you read that right: 20,000,000. (That’s a lot of zeros.)
And it’s also true that the best way to know for sure whether you have an STD or not is to go to the doc and get a full STD panel. (Granted, there are also some new ways to test for STDs right at home.) But because #knowledge=power, we gathered the most common signs of STDs in women, so you can get an idea of what you’re working with.
As you read, remember this: All STDs are treatable and most are curable (including syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis), according to Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., a One Medical Provider who specializes in women’s health care. And while HIV, herpes, and HPV cannot be cured, “we have great treatments to manage them so you can live a regular life,” she says. Yes, really! Many people living with an STD are living happy, healthy lives and are in happy, healthy relationships, she says.
Breathing again? Great. Scroll down to learn more.
The Most Common STD Symptom Is No Symptom At All
Raise your hand if an image of “blue waffle disease” got passed around your grade or high school, warning you against having unprotected sex. ICYMI, the graphic photo features a metallic, blue-tinted vagina that looks, for lack of a better word, infected. (Trust, you don’t want to Google it. Maybe watch the Big Mouth episode about it on Netflix instead.) While the image turned out to be the result of some apt photoshop skills (there’s no such thing as blue waffle disease!), many folks mistakenly think all the signs of STDs in women are that obvious. This is not the case!
On the flip side, “The most common symptom of a sexually transmitted infection is no symptoms at all,” according to Rob Huizenga, M.D., celebrity physician and author of Sex, Lies & STDs. So, if you’ve been waiting for your crotch to change color, grow scales, or breathe fire to get tested, you’ve got the wrong idea, fam.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve routinely tested someone for an STI who had no symptoms, and found that they have an STI like chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, HPV or something else,” says Dr. Bhuyan. (Interestingly enough, in the medical community, infections are only called diseases when they cause symptoms. That’s why you’ve probably also heard STDs called STIs, or sexually transmitted infections, according to Planned Parenthood. That said, it’s super common for people to use “STDs” to describe both, even when there are no signs of disease.)
The scary part? Even without symptoms, letting an STI go undiagnosed and untreated can result in some serious consequences. For instance, “Bacterial infections like chlamydia and gonorrhea spread beyond the cervix to the fallopian tubes.” This can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which may result in blockage or scarring and ultimately cause fertility issues, according to Dr. Witt. In worse case scenarios, if left untreated, PID may result in total hysterectomy (surgical uterus removal) or oophorectomy (surgical ovary removal), adds Kecia Gaither, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.O.G., double board-certified in OB/GYN and maternal-fetal medicine, and director of perinatal services at NYC Health. (Good news: Antibiotics can usually clear PID right up, once it’s been diagnosed.)
And to be very clear: Even if you don’t have symptoms, if you have an STI, you can pass it on to your partner(s). That’s why it’s incredibly important for everyone who is sexually active to get tested for STIs every six months and/or after every new partner, whichever comes first, says Dr. Bhuyan. (Spoiler alert: Getting tested is going to be a common theme here.)
The Most Common Symptoms and Signs of STDs
Even though ‘no symptoms’ is the most common sign of STDs in women and men, sometimes there are more obvious symptoms. Some of them might surprise you. Read below for the seven most common.
1. You’re leaking funky discharge.
Face it: You’re pretty familiar with your own discharge. So if something is well, off, you usually know. “If your discharge is fishy, stinky or funky, you should chat with a healthcare provider,” says Sherry Ross, M.D., ob-gyn, women’s health expert in Santa Monica, C.A., and author of She-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Period. It could be a sign of trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, or chlamydia, she says. Good news: Once diagnosed, all three can be easily treated with antibiotics. (More here: What Does The Color Of Your Discharge Really Mean?).
2. Peeing is painful.
Pop a squat, scroll your Instagram feed, pee, wipe, leave. Unless your ex recently posted a photo of their new boo, typically peeing is a drama-free activity. So when it burns/stings/hurts, you take note. Painful urination is usually caused by a urinary tract infection, and not an STD, says Dr. Bhuyhan; however, “chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, or even herpes can cause discomfort with urination,” she says. (PS: That’s one of a few reasons you shouldn’t self-diagnose a UTI.)
Your plan of action: Get your cute butt over to the doc, and have them run an STD panel and test you for a UTI. (Related: Can Peeing After Sex Really Help Prevent a UTI?)
3. You spy bumps, spots, or lesions.
Sometimes herpes, HPV, and syphilis can cause visible bumps/spots/lesions to appear on and around your goods, according to Dr. Gaither, all which have a slightly different #lewk.
“During a herpes outbreak, typically painful vesicles or blister-like sores will appear in the affected regions,” says Dr. Gaither. But if someone is infected by a strain of HPV that causes genital warts, it’ll look more like white-ish bumps (that are often compared to cauliflower), she says.
Syphilis can also create sores which are medically known as “chancres”, according to Dr. Ross. “A chancre is the site where the syphilis infection enters the body and is an open, round sore that is usually somewhat firm,” she says. Unlike herpes or genital warts, these are typically pretty painless, but they are still very contagious.
So, if you’ve got a bump that looks different from your usual in-grown hair, have your doctor swab it. (And if it is just an ingrown hair, here’s how to get rid of it).
4. Sex is more “ouch” than “oh yeah.”
Let’s be very clear: Sex isn’t supposed to be painful. There are many potential reasons sex might be painful and, yep, a lingering STD is one of them. “Gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, trichomoniasis, herpes, and genital warts can sometimes result in painful sex or painful penetration,” says Dr. Bhuyan. If you’re experiencing painful sex—especially if it’s new or started after you started hooking up with someone new—you should check in with your doctor, she says.
5. Your bits are itchy.
*Subtly tries to scratch vagina in public.* Sound familiar? Trichomoniasis, a common STD caused by a parasite, may cause itching near the genitals, says Dr. Gaither. Having an itchy hoo-ha is pretty damn uncomfy, so get it checked out. If you do have trich, a dose of antibiotics will clear it right up, she says. (Here are more reasons your vagina might be itchy.)
6. Your lymph nodes are swollen.
Did you know your groin contains lymph nodes? Yep! They’re located around your pubic mound and if they feel swollen, Dr. Ross says you might have an STI or other vaginal infection. “Lymph nodes drain the genital area and become enlarged if there are any signs of infection,” she says. (This includes bacterial vaginosis, UTIs, and yeast infections too.)
You probably know that strep throat, mono, and ear infection are also common causes of enlarged lymph nodes. If you come back negative for these and have recently had condom-free intercourse, you should get tested.
7. You feel like you have the flu.
I know, ugh. “Fever and other flu-like symptoms are classic for an initial outbreak of herpes and chlamydia,” says Dr. Ross. A flu-like fatigue can accompany other STDs, including gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV, and Hepatitis B as well, she says.
Because advanced stages of HIV can make you immunocompromised (which affects multiple organ systems), and hepatitis B can affect the liver (and lead to cirrhosis or liver cancer), getting tested for STDs when you feel like you’ve got the flu, but don’t actually have the flu is a must.
When to Get Tested
Whether you’re experiencing one of the above symptoms or just have a feeling ~something else~ is going down there, it’s important to get tested by your healthcare provider immediately, says Dr. Ross. That’s the only way to actually know whether or not you’re positive for an STD, and can get treated and/or manage the symptoms. (Related: How to Have the Safest Sex Possible Every Time)
“The benefit of going to a doctor is that if your symptoms aren’t caused by an STD, they can investigate what else they may be caused by,” adds Dr. Bhuyan. Makes sense.
But to reiterate: Regardless of whether not there are symptoms, you should get tested after every new sex partner and/or every sixth months.
What If I Have an STI?
So a test came back positive… now what? Your doc will help you come up with a game plan. Likely, this will include treatment, a convo with your partner(s) so they know to get tested/treated too, and pressing pause on hookups until the infection is gone or your doc gives you the green light.
And remember: “STDs absolutely do not reflect who you are as a person. Unfortunately, STDs carry a lot of shame and stigma around them—but they shouldn’t!” says Dr. Bhuyan. “The reality is, they’re just like any other infection you could catch from someone else.” And just like the flu, there are ways to minimize your risk of picking up the/an infection, but there is no shame in getting one, she says.
Still have more questions about STIs? Check out this guide on oral STDs or this guide on chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV, and herpes.