How Do You Know If You Have an STD?
Sexually transmitted diseases are some of the most common diseases you can contract. Studies suggest that more than half of all people will get a sexually transmitted disease or infection at some point in their lives. About one in four teenagers get an STD every year, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate 19.7 million newly diagnosed sexually transmitted infections in the United States every year.
While STDs and STIs sound scary and can be incredibly uncomfortable, they can all generally be treated. But how do you know if you have an STD in the first place, and what should you do when you find out? Read on to find out what to do if you think you have an STD.
What is an STD?
Sexually transmitted diseases are infections that can be passed from one person to another via sex (oral, vaginal, or anal). While some can be transmitted through genital skin-to-skin contact, many are spread through certain bodily fluids, including:
All STDs require treatment, though not all STDs can be cured.
The Symptoms of STDs
Noticeable symptoms and problems with your health are often the first sign that something may be wrong. However, this can be tricky as some infections present no symptoms. STD symptoms in men and women also differ based on the specific disease. Some common symptoms of STDs in women and men include:
Swelling, redness, and irritation around the penis and vagina
Bumps, warts, or sores around your mouth, anus, or genitals
Discharge from the genitals
Any combination of these symptoms may point to a potential sexually transmitted infection.
Symptoms of Specific STDs
Identifying the specific symptoms associated with certain sexually transmitted diseases may help you figure out if you have an infection in the first place.
One of the most common STDs, chlamydia is a bacterial infection that affects almost 3 million Americans every year. Chlamydia can be especially sneaky because it often presents no symptoms. That’s why it is such a common infection.
Most people don’t even know they have chlamydia until it gets serious. Symptoms of chlamydia may not show up until several weeks after your initial exposure to the bacteria, but they may include:
Pain or burning when urinating
Yellowish vaginal discharge that has a strong smell
Watery or milky discharge from the penis
Swelling or tenderness in the testicles
Another common STD, gonorrhea is a bacterial infection. Similar to chlamydia, it may present no obvious symptoms, so most people do not even know that they may have a gonorrhea infection. Most women do not experience any symptoms. In men, some common symptoms of gonorrhea may include:
Burning when peeing
Painful or swollen testicles
Discharge from the penis that may appear green, yellow, or white
Herpes is caused by two viruses, herpes simplex virus type 1 and herpes simplex virus type 2. Both of these viruses can stay in your body for the rest of your life. More than half of all Americans have oral herpes, while 1 in 6 Americans has genital herpes.
Most people with herpes may not have any symptoms, but one of the most common symptoms is sores and blisters on the genitals and anus and around the mouth. This may also be accompanied with burning, itching, and pain around the genitals. Herpes caused by herpes simplex virus type 2 may also include flu-like symptoms (fever, headache, chills, aches).
Hepatitis B is a type of liver infection caused by a virus. If left untreated, hepatitis B can cause liver disease. About half of adults who have a hepatitis B infection never get any symptoms, while some symptoms can feel like the flu, cold, or other common illness.
This makes it easy for you to not even know you have hepatitis B. When symptoms do show up, they often don’t happen until 6 weeks to 6 months after the initial exposure, making it even harder to truly pin down. If you think you have hepatitis B, keep an eye out for:
Uncommon feelings of tiredness
Pain in your stomach and a general loss of appetite
Urine that is dark in color
Nausea and vomiting
Aches and pains in your joints
Human papillomavirus (HPV)
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted disease in the country. There are over 100 known types of human papillomavirus, and about 40 of those can infect your genital area. Nearly everyone who is sexually active will get HPV at some point in their lives.
Most types of HPV are harmless, presenting no symptoms. However, some types can cause genital warts (low-risk HPV) or even cancer (high-risk HPV). High-risk HPV generally will not show any signs of infection until it has already caused serious health issues. This is why it is extremely important to regularly get tested for STDs such as HPV.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection. If left untreated, syphilis can cause permanent damage to your nervous system. The symptoms can be mild and hard to notice at first. Some people confuse the initial symptoms of syphilis with pimples or rashes. The disease happens in stages.
The most prominent symptom of the first stage is a sore called a chancre that appears where the syphilis bacteria entered your system. These sores can appear anywhere on your genitals or anus and rarely around your mouth. In the second stage, you may develop rashes on your palms and the bottoms of your feet. This may be accompanied by mild flu-like symptoms. From there, the infection may become latent for several months, but you still require treatment.
Getting Tested for STDs
As you can see, identifying sexually transmitted diseases based on symptoms alone can be difficult considering that you may not experience symptoms or mistake your symptoms for other common diseases. The only way to truly find out if you have a sexually transmitted disease or infection is to get tested.
STD testing can seem daunting or intimidating, but it’s quick, painless, and usually free. However, testing is not always part of a regular checkup, even during a gynecologist exam. Ask your doctor outright for STD tests. Be honest and open with your doctor about your sex life to ensure that you get the right STD tests. Some things you should tell your doctor to figure out your tests include:
Any potential symptoms you may be experiencing
The number of people you have had sex with
Any history of STDs you or your partner(s) may have had
How frequently you use protection
Remember that doctors have probably seen it all, so don’t be embarrassed. You’re being responsible and taking care of your own health. Wondering how to get tested for STDs?
The testing process itself differs based on each STD, but most are easy and pain-free. STD testing includes:
A physical exam: This usually precedes most STD tests and involves the doctor examining you for warts, sores, rashes, discharge, irritation, and other physical symptoms.
A urine test: You simply pee in a cup.
A blood test: The doctor takes a blood sample from your arm or a quick finger prick.
A cheek swab: You rub a swab around the inside of your cheek, usually to test for HIV.
Sore tests: Your doctor may take samples of the fluid from blisters or sores.
Discharge tests: Your doctor may use a swab to collect fluid samples from your genitals, anus, or throat.
Sometimes, your doctor can immediately determine if you have a sexually transmitted disease, but most tests take anywhere from a few days or a few weeks to get results back from the lab. Some clinics also offer rapid testing for HIV, which allows you to get definitive results in just 20 minutes.
What to Do If You Have an STD?
You get your test results back, and they come out positive. The first thing you need to do is stay calm. Having an STD isn’t great, and you may feel embarrassed, mad, or upset. Take a second to breathe. Remember that you’ll be okay and you definitely aren’t alone.
From there, follow your doctor’s orders. You may require follow-up testing, or you might go straight into treatment. Most STDs can easily be treated and cured with medication, so you can finish your course of antibiotics or other prescribed medication and continue with your life.
For STDs that can’t be cured, your doctor can prescribe medication that treats your symptoms and prevents you from transmitting your STDs to your sexual partners, allowing you to live a completely normal life.
Speaking of, an important step to take when you find out you have an STD is to inform anyone that you have had sex with. This ensures that they get tested and treated and prevents the further spread of the STD. Granted, this isn’t the easiest conversation to have. Try to stay calm, and understand that there are millions of other people who have STDs and are also in relationships.
Make sure you also do your research and talk to your doctor so you have all the facts. Talk to your partner at a good time, too. Choose a time when you won’t be distracted or interrupted, and find somewhere comfortable and private. Above all, do not insert any sort of blame or guilt into the conversation.
Remember that most people will get an STD at least once in their lives, and millions of people are living with STDs right now. If you are having trouble coping, tap into your support system. Leaning on partners, close friends, and family members can help to ease any anxieties. You won’t get better by worrying. You should also consider finding a counselor, therapist, or support group to help you work through your feelings.
PlushCare provides in-depth testing and experienced care for all patients. Our knowledgeable team of doctors can provide diagnosis, treatment, and prescriptions for a wide range of sexually transmitted diseases. If you think you have an STD or are wondering how to tell if you have an STD, book an appointment with one of our doctors today.
PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.
Mayo Clinic. STD. Accessed on Februray 6, 2021 at https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sexually-transmitted-diseases-stds/symptoms-causes/syc-20351240
Planned Parenthood. STD. Accessed on Februray 6, 2021 at https://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/stds-hiv-safer-sex
Medline Plus. STD. Accessed on Februray 6, 2021 at https://medlineplus.gov/sexuallytransmitteddiseases.html