Things you probably didn't know about STDs

This isn't a topic that naturally comes up on a first date or even a tenth date. No one wants to talk about STDs, and it can feel even harder to bring the question up to your doctor. However, knowing what to look for is crucial to protecting yourself, and STDs are all too common.

According to the American Sexual Health Association, there are 20 million new cases of STDs every year in the United States. About half of those cases occur in young people ages 15 to 24 years old. Here are just a few of the facts you may not have known.

Most don't have any symptoms

Here's a scary thought. If you had an STD right now, chances are you wouldn't know it. Many have no signs or symptoms at all. "Most STI's (sexually transmitted infections) do not have any symptoms," editor in chief and founder of Psych N Sex, Sasha Aurand, told me. "But I would say the biggest indicator that something is wrong is abnormal discharge."

Because so many STDs have no symptoms, the medical community has transitioned into referring to them as sexually transmitted infections, because they are present in your body, but not producing signs, like a disease would. "The irony of this question is that many individuals with an STD may display no symptoms at all," Chief Physician at STDcheck.com, Dr. David Kulbersh, MD told me. "Having no obvious symptoms is the most common symptom of many STDs, like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis. Since there are often no symptoms present, patients do not realize or recognize that they are infected and these STDs [become] unknowingly spread STIs."

You could notice swelling down there

When our bodies come down with an infection, they work overtime to fight it. One of the ways they do that is by creating more cells to fight the infection, and that causes our lymph nodes to swell. The last time you had a cold, you may have been able to feel the lymph nodes in your neck, because the swelling may have been uncomfortable, or made it tough to swallow.

The same thing happens with STDs. We have lymph nodes in our groins, and they are working to fight off the infection. Emergency department physician and founder of Besafemeds, Dr. Segun Ishmael, told me that "swelling in the groin due to enlarged lymph nodes (draining and trying to fight infections)" happens in both men and women. Men could also experience swollen testicles. "Chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause inflammation of the epididymis (tube on the back of the testicle), causing epididymitis and/or orchitis (inflammation of the testes)," he says.

It may feel like the flu

If you do have symptoms, they may feel pretty mild, like a cold or flu. "Some people experience symptoms of an STI that seem more like those of the flu. HIV, for example, sometimes manifests itself in a fever, a sore throat, or a rash before the person experiences other symptoms," OB/GYN at Dr Felix, Dr. Vivika Joshi, told me. "Women might feel pressure in the abdomen as an early symptom of genital herpes, which could easily be confused with other kinds of ailments. Men often show no symptoms at all for STIs like chlamydia, and so it's essential to get tested regularly to ensure you're all clear."

Dr. Kulbersh agreed and warned that most of the symptoms feel flu-like. "Sometimes STD symptoms mimic common symptoms found with other illnesses, like the flu or common cold," he told me. "For example, individuals who recently contracted HIV may experience symptoms like a sore throat, fever, swollen lymph nodes, nausea, headaches and/or diarrhea."

And it's not just intercourse that could leave you exposed. "Gonorrhea from oral sex can cause a sore throat," said Dr. Ishmael.

They can cause rectal pain

Having an STD affects just about everything, including your rectum. "In cases where there is anal sex, and an STI sets up in the rectum, this can lead to rectal pain, sometimes presenting as pain on sitting down," Dr. Ishmael told me. You could notice severe pain, bleeding, itching, and even discharge from your rectum. These are all things to get checked out right away.

They can actually lead to blindness

I am a nurse, and this complication surprised me. I knew STDs affected our reproductive organs, but even our eyes aren't safe. 

"Remember mom said masturbating will cause blindness?" Dr. Ishmael asked. "Seriously however, chlamydia is known to cause blindness when it affects the eyes."

They can be contagious without symptoms

A common STD myth is that sexual partners are only contagious when they have symptoms, such as herpes sores. Sores and blisters are certainly a red flag when it comes to recognizing an STD in a potential partner, but aren't always present.

"The only way to tell if you or your partner has an STD is to get tested. You can't always spot an STD by its symptoms because often there aren't any," Jenilee Matz, MPH, told MedHelp. "If symptoms do show, they can take weeks or months to appear. Symptoms can also go away on their own, without treatment, but the disease may still be present and may progress to cause complications."

They could lead to heart disease

One of the reasons why it's crucial to be tested regularly is because these diseases are very serious. You may have no symptoms whatsoever, but your major organs could be affected. "Chlamydia and gonorrhea have been known to cause heart problems, especially of the valves and heart muscles," Dr. Ishmael told me. If you have any questions, always check with your doctor.

They can lead to infertility

In both men and women, undiagnosed STDs can lead to infertility issues. If you are planning to have children, getting tested is necessary. 

For men, the infertility is caused by "damage to the testes themselves or scarring to the tubes from the testes," shared Dr. Ishmael. Women are in even more danger, since their entire pelvic region can become infected. "Scar tissue (fibrosis) from pelvic infections or the lining of the uterus can lead to infertility," he explained.

They are more serious for women

We have to blame anatomy for this one. "Women experience more issues since the vagina leads to the uterus and then the pelvis," Dr. Ishmael told me. "This creates a straight path for infections to get into the abdomen and pelvis." Women can even experience vaginal bleeding that may seem like a period. This could come from an infection in the vagina or the cervix.

Dr. Ishmael explained that ladies can also feel abdominal pain if any of the organs in the pelvis are affected. Pelvic infections can also lead to constipation and even lower back pain.

They can cause random symptoms

We often think of STDs as causing obvious symptoms like open sores or burning with urination. However, some of the symptoms may seem completely random. 

"STD/STI's are often asymptomatic, meaning that many times, there are no symptoms, though the infection may still be passed to your partner," EverlyWell medical director, Dr. Marra Francis, told me. "Some uncommon symptoms people may not recognize include a painless ulcer (syphilis) and numbness or [a] tingling sensation (herpes)." If you notice any new symptom, it's always safer to check it out.

Sex could be painful

Because some STDs cause warts or sores, they can lead to painful sex. Dr. Francis told me that many STDs can cause "warts, sores, blisters, or bumps on, or near, the penis, vagina, mouth, or anus." These sores can make both sex and urinating painful, as you'll notice a burning or itching sensation.

They're more common than you'd think

Because many STDs cause no symptoms, we don't realize just how common they are. "The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year, there are 19.7 million new STD/STI infections, and by age 25, one in two sexually active adults will contract some form of STI/STD," Dr. Francis told me. 

She continued, "According to the American Sexual Health Association, more than half of people will have an STD/STI during their lifetime. Without even knowing it, many people can have an STD without experiencing symptoms. Play it safe, play it smart, and always get tested regularly to prevent infection."

STDs increase your HIV risk

Here's some food for thought. Simply having an STD can put you at a much higher risk for developing HIV. 

"Having some of the more common STDs, like herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis or chlamydia, can significantly increase your risk for contracting HIV," Jenilee Matz, MPH, told MedHelp. "According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a person infected with an STD who is exposed to HIV through sexual contract is two to five times more likely to contract the infection than individuals without an STD. Having genital herpes puts you at an even greater risk of contracting HIV if you're sexually exposed to the virus through an infected partner."

You can't get tested right after exposure

If you are concerned about that sketchy one night stand or just haven't been tested for STDs in the past, it's best to be cautious. "The first step is to get tested and to stop having sex so that you do not potentially give it to your partner if they are not infected," Dr. Joshi told me. "There is no other way to know for sure if you currently have an STD other than testing for it. The bacteria and viruses that cause STDs each have varying incubation periods that must elapse prior to getting testing done to ensure that there is enough pathogenic material to test for in a blood or urine sample, so be sure to allow that appropriate time to pass."

"If you have a sketchy one-night stand and go get tested the following day, your results will not be accurate in regards to anything you may have contracted the night before, because there hasn't been enough time for the virus or bacterium to replicate, or for the body to create enough detectable antibodies," Dr. Joshi explained.

You should get tested regularly

There's no way around this one. You just need to go into your doctor' office and be tested. "Get tested. If you can't afford to go to a doctor, going to a clinic is your next best option," Aurand told me. "If you can't get to a clinic, use an app like Doctor on Demand. They can help and prescribe meds. The next thing you should do, if you test positive, is talk to the person or people you've slept with."

It's important to be tested regularly, and the process is quick. Some of the disease tests, such as for chlamydia and gonorrhea, can be done with a urine sample. Others require a blood test or swab of the infected area.

You can test for some STIs at home

Waiting to be tested or to seek treatment is just not an option. While you may not feel the disease itself, it could cause serious health problems later on.

"If you think you might have an STI, you need to get yourself tested as soon as possible. Online doctor services offer home testing kits for gonorrhoea and chlamydia, and a doctor or sexual health clinic can test you for anything else," Dr. Joshi told me. "Some STIs cause increasing amounts of damage to the body when they're left untreated, so don't wait around."

Another good practice is to make sure you're seeing your doctor regularly, because that appointment could be when you catch an STD. "Everyone feels that a drip, a discharge, or burning pain on urinating are the only signs of an STI," Dr. Ishmael told me. "The first thing everyone needs to consider is that in a lot of cases there are never any symptoms or signs of an STI. Many women find out during their annual checkup."

Prevention is key

The most important thing about STDs is knowing how to prevent them. Dr. Ishmael recommended remembering the ABCs of prevention. First is A, for abstinence. Then comes B-ing faithful to the same partner. (Spoiler alert: this one only works if your partner is faithful too!) Finally, C is for condoms and using them correctly. 

With a little forethought about your foreplay, you'll have a happy, healthy sex life for years to come!