Common Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)
If you have sex, you're at risk for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Here are the signs of STDs and why you need to be checked even when y...

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picture of man kissing a woman Common Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)

Sexually transmitted diseases (or STDs, sexually transmitted infections or STIs) are infections that are passed through sexual contact. STDs are spread through vaginal, oral or anal sex or by genital touching.

Not having sex is the only sure way to prevent most STDs. If you choose to have sex, use a barrier birth control method - like a condom - every time you have vaginal, oral or anal sex to reduce your risk.

Most STDs start with no symptoms, and they can spread to others even when you don't have symptoms. You can have an STD and not know it. This is why preventing and getting checked for STDs if you're sexually active is so important.

When people do get symptoms of STDs, these signs are common:



Chlamydia is a bacterial STD that can strike both men and women. Most people with chlamydia have no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to infertility and reproductive organ damage in women.

Usually no symptoms. Symptoms, if present, can start three weeks after infection and include.

In women:

  • Abnormal discharge from the vagina
  • Burning feeling when urinating
  • Lower abdominal or back pain
  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Pain during sex
  • Vaginal bleeding after sex or between periods

In men:

  • Burning or itching around the opening of the penis
  • Discharge
  • Painful urination

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus. The virus can cause outbreaks of blisters and sores around the genitals and rectum. Once you get the virus, it stays in your system forever. Outbreaks usually happen less often in time. Experts estimate that one out of every five teens and adults has genital herpes.

Most people do not know that they have herpes. Symptoms can include:

In men and women:

  • Blisters and sores on the genitals and rectum appear within two weeks of infection
  • Flu-like symptoms such as fever and swollen glands

Gonorrhea is a common bacterial STD. The bacterium thrives in warm, moist places, including the cervix, uterus and fallopian tubes in women and the urethra in men and women. It can also infect the mouth, throat, eyes and anus. If left untreated, it can cause permanent problems in both men and women.

In men: Some men have no symptoms. When symptoms occur, they appear two to 30 days after exposure and may include:

  • Burning when urinating
  • White, yellow or green discharge from the penis
  • Painful or swollen testicles

In women: Most women have no symptoms. Some will have mild symptoms that may include:

  • Pain or burning when urinating
  • Increase in discharge
  • Bleeding between periods

HIV and AIDS. HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus, or the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). HIV attacks and over time destroys the immune system. The immune system's job is to protect you from infection. AIDS is the final stage of infection with the virus. HIV can be treated with medication, but there is no cure for HIV or AIDS.

The only way to know if you have HIV or AIDS is to get tested. Symptoms may not appear until you've had the virus for 10 years or longer.

HPV (genital human papillomavirus) is the most common STD. There are more than 40 different strains of HPV. The body is able to fight off most strains of HPV without treatment. But some strains of HPV cause cervical and other cancers.

There is a vaccine for HPV. Experts suggest all females between the ages of 11 and 26 get vaccinated against HPV. The vaccine is also available for males between the ages of 9 and 26 to help protect them from genital warts.

Symptoms when they occur come on a few weeks or months after infection.

In men and women:

  • Genital warts (The strain of HPV that causes genital warts is not the same one that causes cervical cancer)
  • Warts in the throat (recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, or RRP)

Syphilis is a widespread bacterial STD. It can be easily treated with an antibiotic within the first year of infection. But it gets more severe and harder to treat with time.

Many people do not notice any symptoms for years. But when they do occur, they may include:

In men and women:

  • A sore (called a chancre) may appear 10 to 90 days after infection and heals on its own after a few weeks.
  • Rash can appear when the chancre is healing or weeks after it's healed. The rash is rough, red or reddish brown spots on the palms of the hand and bottoms of the feet. It can appear anywhere on the body, though.
  • Flu-like symptoms, like fever, swollen glands, sore throat, fatigue, body aches and headache
  • Weight loss
  • Hair loss

Trichomoniasis or "trich" is the most common, curable STD in young women, though it can affect both men and women. The parasite usually affects the vagina in women and the urethra in men.

In men:

  • Irritation in the penis
  • Discharge from the penis
  • Burning during urination or ejaculation

In women, symptoms start one to four weeks after infection:

  • Yellow-green, foul-smelling vaginal discharge
  • Painful urination or sex
  • Vaginal itching
  • Low abdominal pain

Some of these same diseases can also be spread through contact with blood or other body fluids or by exposure during birth.

Get tested
If you have any signs of an STD, see your doctor. Only your doctor can tell if your symptoms are caused by an STD or something else. Even if you don't have any symptoms, it's important to be checked for STDs regularly if you are sexually active, because most people with STDs have no symptoms.

Prompt medical care is a crucial in treating STDs. Untreated STDs can cause major illness, infertility, pregnancy problems and birth defects.

By Jenilee Matz, MPH, Staff Writer
Created on 06/08/1999
Updated on 09/22/2010
  • National Women's Health Information Center. Sexually transmitted infections: overview.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV/AIDS basic information.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually transmitted diseases.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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