If you have sex or sexual contact—whether oral, vaginal, or anal— it’s possible to get a sexually transmitted disease (STD). STDs are very common. According to the Centers for Disease Control, millions of new cases happen each year in the United States, though many go undiagnosed.1
Many people don’t know they have an STD because many STDs don’t cause obvious symptoms. Often, people show no signs at all and may be unaware that they are infected for years. When signs appear, they can range from mild to severe and may be confused for other issues. This is why getting tested is important if you are sexually active.
Getting tested is not only quick and easy, it’s the only way to know for sure if you do or do not have an STD.
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STDs can affect more than just the genitals—they can infect the mouth, throat, upper thighs, anus, and even the eyes.
Signs and symptoms of STDs vary depending on the disease, but can include:
Even if you’re not showing obvious signs, untreated STDs can harm your body. STDs are serious infections that can lead to health problems like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), infertility, and organ damage. Some STDs—like HIV— can be deadly. What’s more, having an STD can pose dangers to your unborn baby if you’re pregnant, and put you at higher risk for acquiring HIV and other STDs.
Many STDs show no signs or symptoms (asymptomatic). Even when you have no symptoms, you can pass the infection to sex partners. STDs can be spread from one person to another through contact with infected bodily fluids such as vaginal fluids, semen, or blood. They can also be spread through contact with infected mucous membranes (the moist, soft areas around openings to the body), or infected skin (like mouth sores).
It’s important to use protection like condoms or dental dams when you have sex, and to get tested regularly. Routine testing helps identify potential infections before they cause serious health issues or are spread to other sex partners.
Chlamydia is a common bacterial STD that can cause infections in the genitals, as well as the mouth, throat, anus, and even the eyes. Chlamydia often goes unnoticed because many people who have it experience no or few symptoms.
If you do develop noticeable signs, they may not appear until several weeks after you had sex with an infected partner. These signs and symptoms may be mild, making them easy to brush off. But even when signs are absent or easy to ignore, chlamydia damages your reproductive system.
Signs of chlamydia can include:2
Gonorrhea is an infection that’s also known as the clap or the drip. The bacteria can affect the genitals and other areas such as the mouth, throat, eyes, and anus. The initial signs and symptoms of gonorrhea generally appear within 2 weeks after infection, though it can take months. But many people with gonorrhea— including most women and many men— don’t show any signs or symptoms.
When present, symptoms of gonorrhea include:3
It’s common for people to have both chlamydia and gonorrhea in what’s called a coinfection.
The herpes simplex virus (HSV) is an infection that can occur in various parts of the body, most commonly the mouth (oral herpes) or the genitals (genital herpes). It can cause outbreaks of painful sores. However, most people with HSV don’t know they have it because they show no signs, or have symptoms so mild that may be overlooked. Signs of genital herpes are sometimes mistaken for pimples or ingrown hairs.
When symptoms appear, the first outbreak is usually the most severe. After it heals, some people don’t have any more outbreaks, while others have recurrent episodes for years.
When present, signs of oral herpes can include:4
When noticeable, symptoms of genital herpes can include:5
Within a few weeks of becoming infected, some people experience initial symptoms of pain or itching in the affected area. After a few days, groups of small bumps or blisters can flare up. These blisters may break open, forming ulcers and leaking fluid. After scabs form, the ulcers heal over—but herpes can still be spread when sores aren’t present, and outbreaks may occur again in the future.
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. HIV attacks the immune system and weakens its ability to fight off infections and illnesses. HIV can lead to AIDS, a condition that can be life-threatening.
After contracting the virus, you may not have any symptoms right away. Some, but not all, people develop a flu-like illness between 2-4 weeks after being infected.
Early HIV symptoms can include:6
These early signs of HIV usually go away within a few days or weeks, and they may be mistaken for something less serious. During early infection, the virus multiplies rapidly and a person is very contagious. After the initial symptoms disappear, a person with HIV may show no symptoms, and it can take years for more severe symptoms of HIV infection to develop.
As HIV multiplies and attacks the immune system, it becomes more difficult for the body to fight off infections. Certain illnesses may develop, and you may show signs of chronic infection, including:7
AIDS is the last stage of HIV infection when the immune system has been severely damaged. When someone has AIDS, they’re especially vulnerable to serious, potentially fatal illnesses and infections.
AIDS symptoms can include:
Syphilis is an STD caused by a type of bacteria. It affects the mucous membranes such as the genitals, as well as the skin, but it can be destructive for many parts of the body, including the brains, bones, and heart. Left untreated, late-stage syphilis can make you paralyzed, blind, numb, or demented.
Syphilis has four stages—primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary. Each stage has its own associated symptoms. But recognizing syphilis can be tricky. Syphilis can go through periods when you don’t notice signs or symptoms. Even when signs of syphilis are present, they can be hard to distinguish from other conditions. Syphilis is called “The Great Pretender” because its symptoms can seem like many other diseases.
Syphilis can also pass from a pregnant mother to her unborn baby, which is called congenital syphilis. Congenital syphilis can cause debilitating health problems for a baby like deformed bones, and bone and nerve issues. It can also cause miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death.
The first sign of syphilis—usually a painless and highly contagious sore called a chancre—generally appears within 10 to 90 days.8 It occurs in the location where the syphilis bacteria entered the body, typically the genitals, rectum, or sometimes the lips or mouth. Single chancres are more common, though there may be multiple chancres. Sometimes, chancres can occur in hard-to-see areas like inside the vagina or rectum, making them hard to notice.
The sore heals on its own within 3-6 weeks. But without treatment, syphilis infection stays in the body and can spread through the bloodstream, progressing to the secondary stage.
Secondary syphilis tends to happen 2 to 8 weeks after a chancre has healed, or sometimes while it’s healing.9 It’s usually marked by a rash that can cover one or multiple parts of the body. Another common sign is lesions in the mouth and genitals. During this stage, a person is highly contagious.
Signs of secondary syphilis include:
Symptoms may go away by themselves, without treatment. They may never return again, or they may repeatedly come and go over a long period.
After secondary syphilis, some people may experience a period when no symptoms are present, called latent syphilis. Latent syphilis can last for months or even years. Signs may not ever come back, or secondary symptoms may appear again. Without treatment, latent syphilis may advance to the dangerous tertiary stage.
Left untreated, syphilis may spread throughout the body. Tertiary syphilis can damage multiple organs systems such as the brain and nerves, the eyes, the bones and joints, the liver, and the eyes. It can appear 10-30 years after infection and is very serious.8 Tertiary syphilis can cause severe, disabling health issues and even death.
Effects of tertiary syphilis can include:
At any stage of infection, syphilis can spread to the nervous system, which controls your body and helps your body parts communicate. Often, neurosyphilis causes no symptoms, but it can lead to signs such as:
Many people don’t experience symptoms. For people who do, signs may appear several weeks after infection and include:10
You can’t always tell if you have an STD by how you look or feel, so thinking you or your partner(s) don’t have STDs is not the same as knowing for sure. If you think you have STD symptoms or are concerned you may have been exposed, getting tested is the best way to know your status. You can get tested at a doctor or clinic, or at a lab near you.
In general, it’s a good idea to get tested for STDs at least yearly. Early detection helps you protect yourself and get treatment if necessary. Some STDs are easily curable. Others can be managed with the right medication to lessen symptoms and reduce the risk of spreading the infection to others.