by Dr. Tessa Commers
Julie Medical Advisor

What are STDS?

If you recently found out you have a sexually-transmitted infection (STI), also referred to as a sexually transmitted disease (STD), or have a partner that does, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed or worried. The first thing to know is that these infections are very common and more people have them than you probably think. Each year there are an estimated 374 million new infections with 1 of 4 curable STIs: chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and trichomoniasis, and even more diagnoses of manageable STIs like herpes and HIV It’s possible to fully recover from some of these infections, but it’s important to get treatment right away before they cause lasting harm to you or your partner(s). This article covers what you need to know about STIs, common symptoms, how to have sex with them, treatment, and how to protect yourself and your partners.


STIs and STDs: What’s the difference?

Sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), like chlamydia and gonorrhea, are infections that can be passed from person to person during sex. This happens through blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and other bodily fluids. The likelihood of contracting an STI increases when you have unprotected sex, so using barrier protection, like a condom, is a great way to protect yourself.


Sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) and STIs are terms that are often used interchangeably, but they’re not actually the same. STIs cause STDs, but STIs aren’t technically STDs until symptoms occur. You can have an STI and not experience any symptoms, which makes it easy to give it to someone else without knowing. Some of the most common types of STIs include HPV, crabs (lice), chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis.


How do you get them?

STIs are passed through bodily fluids and/or physical contact, but they’re not always contracted through sexual intercourse. You can become infected with certain STIs through blood transfusions or needle sharing, and mothers can pass certain STIs to their newborns during childbirth if the mother already has an uncontrolled STI. The incubation period, or how long it takes to start seeing symptoms, is different for every person and for every STI. In fact, many people don’t even know they have an STI. The only way of knowing is to be tested.


Common STI Symptoms

It’s common to have an STI without any symptoms, but physical symptoms can be a good indicator that you have one. So if you think you’ve been exposed to an STI, start noticing abnormal things going on with your body, or if you think you have any of the symptoms below, get tested as soon as possible:


Sex tip: Get tested when you start having sex with someone new, just in case one of you has an STI without any symptoms. If you’re under 25, it’s recommended to get tested every year.


Here are some of the most common STI symptoms:


Pain or burning during urination

Pain or a burning sensation, when you pee, can be caused by an STI such as chlamydia or gonorrhea, but it could also be a sign of a urinary tract infection (UTI). If you have a UTI, you might feel like you need to pee more often, but you’re unable to. Your urine might also look cloudy or have an unusual smell. Both can easily be diagnosed by a doctor.


Unusual vaginal bleeding

There are many reasons why you could be experiencing unusual bleeding (light or heavy). It could be an underlying gynecological condition, but it could also be from an STI. Chlamydia is the usual culprit since it’s known to cause inflammation.


Fever

As with the flu, a fever is usually a sign that your body is fighting an infection. This symptom is typically linked to chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV, and HIV. It also might be a sign that the infection is more widespread, so it’s always safest to see a doctor as soon as possible.


Pain during sex

STIs can cause sensitivity that leads to pain or discomfort during sex, especially penetrative sex, i.e. the kind where a penis or dildo enters a vagina or anus. If you feel pain, bleeding may also occur after intercourse. Check-in with your doctor to make sure that something serious isn’t going on.


Sores or bumps

Sores, bumps, and warts can vary in size and appearance and are usually an indicator of an STI. They might look flat, raised, or cauliflower-shaped. Some are very painful, and others are painless. Someone experiencing this could have genital warts (HPV), herpes, or syphilis, but it’s best to check in with a doctor ASAP to make sure you get the right treatment.


Rash

Rashes can appear anywhere on your body and vary in color. Some can be irritating or not itch at all. In the case of syphilis, they can be found on the palms of your hands, feet, in your mouth, or around your vagina or anus. Syphilis is easily treated but should be addressed immediately.


Sore or swollen lymph nodes

Sore or swollen lymph nodes are another common and uncomfortable symptom. Swollen lymph nodes can occur around your groin, rectum, or pelvis. If you feel like your lymph nodes are swollen, check in with your doctor.


Unusual vaginal discharge

Vaginal discharge is totally normal and can change in frequency, amount, color, consistency, and smell. But when we talk about STIs, we’re referring to abnormal vaginal discharge, which may be thick, itchy, yellow or green in color, and foul-smelling. If you notice any discharge that is different from what you’re used to seeing, reach out to your doctor.

List of Common STIs

There are a lot of different STIs out there. Here are some of the most common:


Gonorrhea

Referred to as “the clap” or “the drip,” gonorrhea is a bacterial infection and is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections, especially among people ages 15 -24. The good news is it’s very treatable.


Chlamydia

Chlamydia is a bacterial infection and, like gonorrhea, it’s one of the most common STIs. It’s usually seen in young people and is very treatable.


Syphilis

Like other bacterial infections, syphilis can spread through oral, anal, or vaginal sex. If left untreated, it can cause permanent damage, but it’s easily treated if detected early.


Herpes simplex virus (HSV types 1 and 2)

Herpes is a virus that can cause painful ulcers on your genitals and mouth. Although you can never get rid of the virus, there are medications to help manage the symptoms and cause fewer outbreaks. The medications can also reduce the risk of passing the virus on to a partner.


Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV is the most common STI. The body often fights off infection on its own, but in some cases it can lead to genital warts, penile cancer or oral cancer. It’s also the main cause of cervical cancer. You can protect yourself from the most harmful strains of the virus (those that cause warts and cancer) with the HPV vaccine.


Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a viral strain that can cause liver disease. It’s usually spread by coming into contact with infected bodily fluids and can sometimes lead to yellowing of the eyes, abdominal pain, and dark urine. It can be prevented with a vaccine.


HIV/AIDS

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that breaks down the cells in the immune system and weakens its ability to fight infection. HIV is the virus that causes AIDs. There’s no cure, but there is a treatment that can help people with HIV live long healthy lives.


Crabs (Pubic Lice)

As one of the most common STDs, pubic lice–also known as crabs—are small parasites that attach to the skin and hair near your genitals and feed on your blood, causing intense itching. It can be treated with a topical pyrethrin lotion or mousse.


Treatment

Treatment can look different depending on what STI you have, but most have great management options. Depending on your symptoms and test results, there are two classes of medications that your doctor may prescribe you:

  • Antibiotics: As the most common form of treatment for bacteria, a course of antibiotics can help cure bacterial STIs like gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis. While most antibiotics can be taken orally, intramuscular injection is often used for gonorrhea, which has a growing problem of antibiotic resistance. It’s important to finish your antibiotic treatment once you start it. If you have sores, you should abstain from sex until you heal. Experts also recommend that women be retested in about three months because there's a high chance of reinfection.
  • Antiviral: If you have a STI like herpes or HIV, your doctor will likely prescribe an antiviral drug. Viral infections can’t be cured, but antiviral drugs can help to manage them. The sooner you begin treatment with an antiviral drug, the more effective it will be. When taken regularly and as prescribed, these drugs can reduce the viral load and reduce the risk of passing to a partner.
  • Pyrethrins: Pyrethrins are naturally-occurring compounds with insecticidal properties that are found in pyrethrum extract from certain chrysanthemum flowers. The pyrethrins are often used in household insecticides and products to control lice, in addition to human “pubic” lice also known as crabs. Most products can be purchased over the counter, and some are prescription. It is important to follow the directions on the package. It is also important to let your partner know so that they can be treated as well.

Some treatment methods also include surgery or laser removal, but those are only for specific infections.


Testing

If you’re sexually active, getting tested for STIs is one of the most important things you can do to maintain your health and protect your body, as most infections can cause lasting damage if left uncontrolled. This might involve going through your sexual history with your doctor, but the more you can tell them, the more accurately you can be tested and treated. If you’re uncomfortable speaking to your doctor about this, there are many clinics that provide confidential and low-cost testing.


When to take a test

There are two different indications to get tested: routine screening and symptoms/exposure concerns. In the United States, it’s recommended that everyone get tested for HIV after their first time having sex. Thereafter, testing in females having vaginal sex should be once yearly until the age of 25 and then/or with new partners or high-risk scenarios. Men who have sex with men should also be tested yearly. As needed testing (as previously discussed) is recommended if experiencing symptoms or following a known infection in a partner..


How long after sex

STIs like gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to show up. HIV can take up to 3 months to show up on a test. If you feel like there’s a possibility that you could have contracted an STI, it’s generally appropriate to get tested two weeks after unprotected sex, then follow-up testing as needed.


What does testing look like?

Tests are performed and confirmed in a laboratory and may require a urine sample, cheek swab, vaginal swab, urethral swab, a scraping from a skin lesion or a blood test. Besides blood testing, the basic STI testing is generally noninvasive and private, meaning those with female anatomy swab their own vaginas with a collection swab and those with male anatomy pee in a cup. As one gets older or depending on comfort level, cervical samples can also be collected via a pap smear.


Prevention

The most effective way of avoiding STIs is not to have sex. In reality, that doesn’t always happen. If you’re sexually active, here are some ways to prevent yourself from contracting an STD.


  • Check-in with your partner about recent testing or do a quick body scan for concerning growths or sores
  • Do the same check-in that you ask of your partner. Be responsible about having symptoms or exposures tested and treat when indicated.
  • Use condoms or other barrier methods (like dental dams) to reduce the risk of coming in contact with bodily fluids.
  • Vaccines: Getting vaccinated before sexual exposure is a very effective way to prevent certain types of STIs. Currently, there are vaccines for both HPV and hepatitis B. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the HPV vaccine for girls and boys starting at age 9 and the hepatitis B series for all infants.


Safe sex with a partner that has an STI

There are certain things you can do to lower your risk of contracting an STI from a sexual partner:


Get tested and share your results

First, get tested and have an honest conversation about your results. This can be a difficult conversation, but it allows both you and your partner to make informed decisions for your health and your sexual relationship.


In 38 states, physicians can actually write a prescription for a patient’s partner for treatment of gonorrhea or chlamydia. This is called expedited partner therapy. You can also get the HPV vaccine to help lower your chance of contracting that virus. It’s FDA approved for ages 9 to 26 and has shown to be effective in preventing numerous strains of the HPV virus.


If your partner has genital herpes

Unfortunately, herpes is not treatable but is definitely manageable. If you or your partner has herpes, there are some antiviral medications that can help reduce (but not eliminate) the risk of spreading herpes to a partner. Another factor that can reduce the risk of spreading herpes to a partner is a condom, though the risk still exists as herpes spreads from skin-to-skin contact. Studies have shown that people with genital herpes taking antiviral medications are able to reduce the risk of passing it to their partner by 75%. When you add a condom, the risk is even lower.


It’s also important to know that if you and your partner have the same STI, that doesn’t mean you’re automatically safe. It is possible for two partners with the same STI to infect each other with a different strain, so it’s always best to use protection.


Explore other types of sex

One way to be sexual with a partner who has an STI is to explore other ways of being intimate, like foreplay, stroking, and mutual masturbation. Oral sex may also be a safe option for many couples.


Reduce partners and use protection

Reducing your number of sexual partners can also help lower your risk. Latex condoms, female condoms, and dental dams (a piece of rubber that covers the genitals during oral sex) can all help prevent the spread of STIs.


How to tell your partner

Did you test positive for an STI? Letting all of your potentially-exposed partners know is one of the most important things you can do. While it might feel embarrassing, remember that these infections are incredibly common. In fact, more than 1 million STIs are contracted every day.


Sharing your test results with your partner(s) can be helpful as well as explaining general information about the particular STI. Everyone is different when it comes to getting news like this, but one of the most important messages is to encourage your partner to get tested so they can know their status as soon as possible.


In some states, healthcare professionals offer Partner Notification Services that will reach out to your partners for you and refer them to get tested.

Protecting you and your partner

The best way to protect you and your partner from STDs is through open communication, regular testing, and barrier protection (like condoms and dental dams). It can be hard to know if you or someone else has one without talking about it or taking the proper precautions. Our after-sex checklist can help remind you to check in with your body after sex and lower your risk of infection. If you notice symptoms, see sores, or begin to feel discomfort, and you think you might have been at risk of contracting an STI, get tested as soon as possible.


This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.