STDs, or sexually transmitted diseases, are incredibly common among adults. In fact, according to the CDC, an estimated 80% of adults will have at least one STD in their lifetimes. Many of these infections go untreated, unfortunately.
Why the lack of treatment?
Partly because many people simply don’t know the signs of an infection, meaning they don’t know they should seek medical help. While there are plenty of tell-tale symptoms of STDs that many people know, like genital warts, there are plenty of lesser-known symptoms that often fly under the radar.
What are some common signs of STDs?
Being able to identify these symptoms is one of the keys to a healthy body and a healthy sex life. The first symptom is fairly common among many STDs, as well as many other medical conditions, making it one to keep an eye out for…
11. Severe Itching
Scientifically, itching is known as pruritus, and it is one of the most common signs of an STD. While mild itching can be caused by a variety of conditions—including dry skin and chafing—severe itching is a sign that an individual might have a sexually transmitted infection.
Where does the itching occur?
This itching usually occurs in areas where the STD is located, but this isn’t always the case. With chlamydia, for example, there can be a general itching distributed throughout the body. The severe itching caused by an STD can also happen in and around the anus as well as over the body if a rash occurs. STDs that infect the mouth are less likely to cause itching, but the open sores associated with oral herpes have been known to lead to an itching sensation during particularly bad breakouts.
Who can experience this symptom?
It’s worth noting that various sexes can experience this symptom in different ways. Take trichomoniasis (or “trich”), an infection of protozoa; this infection also causes itching. This parasite causes vaginal itching for some, while those with a penis typically do not experience this symptom, even if they have an active infection.
Itching is an annoying and often uncomfortable symptom. The next sign, however, is often downright unbearable…
10. Painful Sex
Pain experienced during sex is a common sign of an STD for people of all sexes. In fact, most STDs can lead to painful sex at some point. An exception? Genital warts. While uncomfortable and unsightly, these warts rarely cause outright pain. Now, most STD causes pain, but in slightly different ways.
What specifically causes the pain?
Experiencing pain during sex can be a sign of trichomoniasis, bacterial infections, or herpes. How? Specifically, parasitic infections can inflame tissues, causing pain. Bacterial infections can also inflame tissue as well as lead to more advanced problems. These problems can include tissue degrading, which can cause severe pain if intercourse is attempted at this stage of infection. Viral infections, such as herpes, can lead to open sores that are easily aggravated by many activities (including sex).
Who can experience this symptom?
STDs that cause pain during sex aren’t just limited to vaginal pain, either. It is quite common for STDs to cause penile pain as well. For example, many bacterial and viral infections can cause sores to appear within the penile urethra, which can lead to notable pain during intercourse.
While painful intercourse can be an obvious sign of an STD, there are some other signs that are less easy to recognize, especially since they overlap with other diseases and conditions…
9. Sore Throat
This symptom is one that often catches people by surprise.
How can STDs cause a sore throat?
Often, when people think of STDs, they don’t think about the throat or neck. However, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, and even herpes can infect the throat. Naturally, this infection leads to symptoms similar to a sore throat. Even if the infection is not direct, a sore throat can still be a secondary symptom of an STD.
Is it an STD or something else?
How can one tell the difference between a sore throat caused by an STD and one caused by something else? There isn’t one-size-fits-all diagnostic tool here. However, generally speaking, if the sore throat persists beyond the range of a normal cold or there’s trouble swallowing, it’s a likely sign that there might be an underlying STD causing the infection.
While this sign can affect people of any sex, those with vaginas almost exclusively experience this next symptom…
8. Irregular Bleeding
Regular menstrual bleeding is, of course, a normal and healthy cycle. Irregular bleeding can therefore indicate that something is wrong, which can be anything from malnutrition to a sexually transmitted infection.
Identifying irregular bleeding
The key difference between regular and irregular bleeding comes down to a someone knowing their own personal health. Irregular bleeding is any bleeding that occurs at abnormal times, in abnormal amounts (either heavier or lighter), or is otherwise unusual to an individual. This abnormality can include what is known as “spotting,” when small spots of blood are visible between periods.
How do STDs cause irregular bleeding?
How do STDs cause irregular bleeding? Well, infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia, for example, can cause inflammation of the uterus, which can lead to irregular bleeding.
Penile bleeding is highly irregular. Severe bacterial or parasitic infections can cause penile bleeding if left untreated, however. So, penile bleeding is a symptom of an extreme infection that requires immediate treatment.
Keep looking for further clues.
Another related STD symptom also has to do with unusual discharge…
7. Unusual Discharge
Discharge is a symptom that is highly related to irregular bleeding. In fact, the two often occur at the same time. This timing is because they are both symptoms of advanced infections. Gonorrhea and chlamydia are the STDs most often associated with discharge.
But what is discharge, exactly?
Discharge is an excreted material, and it can be excreted from those of any sex. The physical makeup of discharge is a combination of bacteria, mucus, and water. It can be yellow, green, brown, or white in color and have textures ranging from thick and goopy to thin and stretchy.
Does the discharge smell?
STD discharge can also have a noticeable unpleasant odor.
When can this symptom appear?
This symptom typically starts light, but becomes heavier and more noticeable as the disease progresses. Changes of color of the discharge, especially from lighter to darker, is a sign that the infection is becoming more severe.
What will vaginal discharge look like?
Discharge presents itself different depending on who it infects. Notably, vaginal discharge can be a common, perfectly healthy occurrence. For example, it is not uncommon to see a clear or white discharge at any time of the month or to see a slightly brown discharge during menstruation
It’s a problem, though, when someone notices a change in their discharge. Yellow and green discharge is commonly sign of infection.
What about penile discharge?
Penile discharge is much rarer without an underlying infection. Gonorrhea and chlamydia are often the culprits of penile discharge.
An STD or something else?
As a symptom of STDs, discharge is highly noticeable and often a clear sign of infection. The next symptom is fairly noticeable, yet trickier to pinpoint to an underlying STD since it’s associated with plenty of other conditions…
Jaundice is a yellowing of the skin, whites of the eyes, and mucus membranes. It results from an increase in yellow-orange tinted pigments in the blood, released after the breakdown of red blood cells. Specifically, a kind of bile known as bilirubin builds up in the blood and tissues after the breakdown of red blood cells, which leads to this discoloration.
Is it an STD or something else?
Jaundice can be a normal part of a person’s life if they happen to have high levels of bilirubin naturally occurring in their blood. For others, though, this symptom can be a sign of infection.
Jaundice is a general symptom, meaning that it can be related to nearly any STD rather than being a unique symptom of a singular infection. In fact, both bacterial and viral infections can cause jaundice.
How does it happen?
Why can most STDs cause jaundice? Because if infections progress, they can cause overall health to deteriorate. This deterioration, in turn, causes jaundice. An exception to this rule is hepatitis, which can cause jaundice early on.
Be extra vigilant during flu season.
This next symptom is particularly hard to pin to a specific sexually transmitted infection, particularly during cold and flu season…
5. Flu-like Symptoms
Common flu symptoms include headache, nausea, stiff joints, fatigue, upset stomach, and more. These symptoms can also overlap with STDs.
How and why do these symptoms happen?
Now, a fever occurs when the body raises its temperature to beat an infection. When STDs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, and hepatitis go untreated, they can progress into general infections that lead to fevers. Swollen lymph nodes are another good example of this immune response, as they produce the white blood cells that fight off infections, including STDs.
Most people are unaware of how STDs can spread throughout the body after an infection sets in. Gonorrhea, for example, can progress into gonococcal arthritis if left untreated; this form of arthritis is caused by gonorrhea-causing bacteria spreading to the joints. Notably, in the early stages of infection, symptoms can feel like the general joint stiffness that comes with a seasonal flu.
Other flu-like symptoms—such as general fatigue, chills, and headaches—can be associated with nearly any STD. These general symptoms correspond with a general health decline resulting from an infection.
An STD or UTI?
Now, flu-like symptoms can have many causes. The next sign, however, is most often caused by either a UTI or STD…
4. Painful Urination
Painful urination is often a clear sign of an STD. Outside of a general urinary tract infection (UTI) or targeted physical trauma, there aren’t many causes for painful urination that are not STD-related.
How can herpes cause painful urination?
The clearest cause of painful urination is genital herpes. Herpes is a viral infection that has two phases: dormant and active. During the dormant phase, infected individuals show practically no symptoms of the infection.
During an outbreak, though, open sores can appear on the outside of the genitals, inside the urinary tract, on the crotch, or near the anus. These sores are typically painless themselves, but can become incredibly painful if they come into contact with urine. So, when an outbreak occurs in the urinary tract, individuals will feel a painful burning sensation.
How can other STDs cause painful urination?
Other STDs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, can also cause painful urination. This pain occurs because these infections lead to inflamed and sore tissue in and around the genitals. This process in turn can cause open sores, which become painful when exposed to urine.
What symptoms are hard to miss?
Painful urination is hard to ignore; this next symptom is also hard to miss, but also much more likely to be mistakenly attributed to something else…
3. Skin Rash
Skin rashes can have many causes, including certain infections. It’s important to note that not everyone with an STD will get a rash.
What do these rashes look & feel like?
Now, a skin rash is any discoloration of the skin that can occur either in localized patches or throughout the body. These patches can be raised, itchy, flaking, or even painful. Some rashes present as just a red discoloration with no other characteristics, making them hard to trace back to a specific cause.
What causes these rashes?
Now, there are a few STDs that can cause these types of rashes.
What are scabies rashes like?
Scabies, a skin parasite, is one such rash that can be spread through skin-to-skin contact during sex. This parasite noticeably creates rashes wherever it infects the body. These rashes can be itchy, red, scaly, or even painful.
What are herpes rashes like?
Genital herpes can also cause skin rashes. Though rashes are a less-common product of genital herpes, the itching and discomfort this condition causes can prompt the skin to develop a rash of its own. It’s important to note that not everyone with herpes will show visible symptoms.
What are syphilis rashes like?
The biggest STD to be concerned with when it comes to skin rashes is syphilis. Now, syphilis infections come in three stages. The second stage is notably marked by a rash that can travel across the entire body. It is most commonly experienced as a persistent, raised, red rash on the chest and back. This rash lasts for about six weeks. After this stage, syphilis can then become a very dangerous general infection.
This next symptom is also hard to miss, and much more likely to be what many consider a “classic” STD symptom…
2. Bumps and Warts
Bumps and warts around the genitals are another likely sign of an STD infection.
How does HPV cause warts?
Genital warts are caused by the human papillomavirus, otherwise known as HPV. HPV can be asymptomatic, that is having no symptoms, for the entire duration of the infection. When this infection becomes symptomatic, it often presents as warts around the exterior of the genitals.
What do HPV warts look & feel like?
These warts are typically painless, but can become uncomfortable. The warts typically present as “cauliflower” shaped and light-colored patches of growths on the skin. It’s important to note that even when the warts go away—which they will, even on their own, over the course of about a year—the infection is still active in the body and transmittable.
What are HIV & herpes warts like?
HIV and herpes can also cause bumps to appear around the genitals. These bumps are less like the warts caused by HPV and are more similar to open sores.
An STD or something else?
It’s important to note that not all bumps near the genitals are caused by STDs. They can be pimples, ingrown hairs, or pearly penile papules, which are thought to be the evolutionary remnants of so-called “penile spines” seen in some mammals.
A noteworthy thing about bumps and warts is that they have very distinctive physical appearances, making them easy for doctors to spot and identify.
So, what’s the takeaway?…
1. Final Thoughts
There are dozens of symptoms that can come with an STD infection. These symptoms range from the hard to identify (rashes, flu-like symptoms, and jaundice) to the very specific (genital warts and painful urination).
Symptoms often travel in packs.
STD symptoms usually don’t come alone, but travel in groups. Noticing the signs of an STD infection comes down to being able to spot these common signs and notice when more than one starts to appear.
But no symptoms are also common.
However, no symptoms doesn’t mean no STDs. That’s why safer sexual practices, open communication with sexual partners, and regular testing is key to reducing rates of STD transmission.