Sex is supposed to be fun without the headache of worrying whether you contracted a sexually transmitted disease. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Both men and women are vulnerable to “picking up” an STD during unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Some of these diseases even transmit through skin-to-skin contact of genital areas not covered by a condom.
With casual sex and homosexuality being so common and socially acceptable, the risk of contracting a disease or infection is higher than before. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that STD’s in the US reached record highs in 2017 with almost 2.3 million cases.
The fact that some STDs show no symptoms or have no cure is even scarier. Knowing what signs and symptoms to look for when they do develop can help you get treated early and reduce the risk of transmission.
Common STD Symptoms in Men
Due to their biological makeup, some common STD’s tend to fly under the radar in men. Because they show little or no symptoms, it is easier for them to be passed on unknowingly.
Herpes is an infection caused by type 1 or 2 of the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Oral herpes is caused by HSV type 1 and genital herpes by HSV type 2. The virus can pass between two people through skin-to-skin contact with the genitals or mouth. Both types 1 and 2 of the virus may be present on the mouth or genitals. Herpes can still be transmitted when there are no symptoms:
Symptoms of herpes in men
If symptoms show, they can occur within 2 days to 2 weeks of the infection and can be confused with other skin conditions. The initial outbreak is often more severe.
- Feeling generally unwell
- Swollen lymph nodes, e.g., in the groin
- Burning, itching, or tingling at the site where blisters will develop
- Blisters on the testicles, penis, around the anus, or on the buttocks or thighs (genital herpes)
- Blisters on tongue, lips, gums (oral herpes)
- Muscles aches
The CDC says human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common STD in the US. There are more than 150 strains of the virus which can be transmitted through oral, vaginal, or anal sex and skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. HPV can also cause cancers of the throat, vagina, vulva, cervix, penis, or anus.
Symptoms of HPV in men
It is common for HPV to show no symptoms in men. However, the most common symptoms are itchy warts:
- Common warts (raised, rough bumps on the hands, fingers, or elbows that may be painful or bleed easily)
- Genital warts (flat or raised bumps or a group of bumps appear on or around the penis, scrotum, or anus)
- Flat warts (Slightly raised with a flat top, these warts show up anywhere on the skin and are usually darker in color than the skin.)
- Plantar warts (These are hard, grainy warts that typically appear on the heels of the feet.)
- Cancers of the throat, penis, or anus
Gonorrhea, also called “clap” or “the drip,” is a bacterial infection transmitted through vaginal, oral, or anal sex. It is one of the oldest STD that affects sexually active men and women and is highly contagious between male sex partners. Gonorrhea can infect the throat, vagina, urethra, or anus. Infected fluid on the hand can also pass to the eye and cause the disease.
Symptoms of gonorrhea in men
Most men with this infection do not show symptoms. In some cases, gonorrhea shows the following common symptoms within 24 days of being infected:
- Sore throat
- Pain or a burning sensation when peeing
- Pain or swelling in the testicle
- Milky white, green, yellow discharge from the penis
- Anal itching, soreness, or bleeding
Like gonorrhea, chlamydia is another very common STD caused by a bacterium. It also spreads through oral, anal, or vaginal, with an infected sex partner.
Symptoms of chlamydia in men
Though rare, men may show signs of chlamydia a few weeks after the disease was passed to them.
- Pain during urination
- White, watery, or cloudy discharge from the penis
- Swollen or painful testicle
- Pain, discharge, or bleeding from the rectum
Syphilis is an ancient disease caused by a bacterial infection that is still common today among men and women. This STD has four stages. Symptoms may show during the primary and secondary stages before becoming latent or dormant. A person can still transmit the infection during the latent stage. Severe signs of syphilis usually appear when the disease is in its advanced or final stage.
Untreated syphilis can cause damage to the heart, joints, or nervous system and even lead to death. The disease is considered a serious STD in men because it increases their risk of contracting HIV.
- A tiny, firm, and painless sore at the site of the infection, typically on the lips, penis, or anus
- Swelling of the lymph nodes close to the area where the sore appears
- A rash, commonly seen on the inside of the hands or the bottom of the feet
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Sore throat
- General tiredness
- Hair loss
- Heart damage
- Damage to the brain or nervous system
- Joint damage
- Liver, kidney, or blood vessel damage
Trichomoniasis, or “trich,” is an STD that is caused by a parasite called Trichomonas Vaginalis. It is more common in women and can be transmitted between man to women, woman to woman, or man to man sexual contact.
Even though it is frequently passed through oral, vaginal, or anal sex, the parasite can transmit from skin-to-skin contact with the genitals. Only about 30% of people with the disease develop symptoms, typically within 5 to 28 days of becoming infected. Trichomoniasis is a very common and easily curable infection.
Symptoms of trichomoniasis in men
Women more often show symptoms of this STD. If a man shows signs of the infection they could include:
- Discharge from the urethra
- Pain during urination
- Pain and swelling of the scrotum
Hepatitis B is a viral infection that can be contracted through vaginal, anal, or oral sex. In addition, it can spread through infected blood or bodily fluid. For example, by sharing toothbrushes, razors, or nail clippers used by an infected person.
Inflammation of the liver is the most common symptom of Hep B that produces other symptoms. The inflammation can go undetected while causing liver damage. Symptoms may show from 6 weeks to 6 months of the getting the disease. Some people become immune and show no symptoms while others become “carriers” and can continue to pass the virus to others.
Symptoms of hepatitis B in men
- Low-grade fever
- Muscle or joint pain or aches
- Loss of appetite
- Dark urine
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) causes AIDS and has no cure. According to the CDC, approximately 1.1 million men and women in the US were living with the virus in 2015. The disease is more prevalent among men who have sex with men.
HIV spreads through vaginal, oral, or anal sex with someone who has the virus. It can also pass through fluids such as blood or semen or through an infected needle used by a person carrying the virus. HIV attacks and weakens the immune system, increasing the risk of developing other illnesses or contracting other STDs.
Symptoms of HIV in men
HIV symptoms vary from person to person and may depend on the stage of the infection. Stages of the HIV infection are acute, asymptomatic, and advanced. Flu-like symptoms and fever may show up about 2 to 4 weeks after contracting the virus. Other symptoms may exhibit months to years before later (advanced stage) and may include:
- Rapid weight loss
- Persistent diarrhea
- Frequent colds, flu, or fungal infections
- Chronic fatigue
- Recurring chills, night sweats, or fever
- Persistent cough
- Rashes or sores on the genitals or other parts of the body
Common STD Symptoms in Women
Like men, women also develop symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases. Women are more likely to notice symptoms than men when it comes to certain types of STDs, e.g., trichomoniasis. Due to their biological makeup, it is also easier for women to contract certain STD’s.
Here are common symptoms women experience when infected with some of the most prevalent sexually transmitted diseases:
There is no cure for herpes. The virus remains in the body as symptoms come and go. Poor diet and stress often reactivate the virus causing recurring symptoms. Some of the following symptoms are sometimes confused for pimples or the flu:
- Sores on or in the mouth, also known as cold sores (HSV type 1)
- Sores on the genitals (HSV type 2)
- Itching, burning, or tingling where sores will later develop
- Group of painful, itchy blisters on the vagina, vulva, cervix or anus.
- Blisters that crust after a few days and disappear on their own
- Burning or difficulty when urinating
- Fever, chills, or headaches
- Swollen lymph nodes near the throat, pelvic area, or under the arms
Like men, warts are common symptoms of human papillomavirus in women. The various types of warts may be small, large, flat, raised, flesh-colored, pink or shaped like a cauliflower. One of the biggest telltale signs of the infection in women who show no other symptoms is cervical cancer or changes in the cervical tissue. However, not all women who get HPV will get cervical cancer.
- Genital warts (vagina, vulva, cervix, or anus)
- Warts on the heels of the feet
- Warts on the hand, fingers, elbows or in the nose, mouth or throat
- Cancers of the throat, vagina, vulva, cervix, or anus
When symptoms of gonorrhea do develop they can be mild and may be mistaken for signs of a bacterial infection or vaginal yeast infection. Common symptoms include:
- Vaginal discharge that may be creamy, watery, or greenish in color
- Frequent urination
- Pain or burning during urination
- Sore throat
- Spotting or heavy bleeding
- Lower abdominal pain or pain during sex
A larger percentage of women than men will have no symptoms of this common STD. If symptoms develop, they are typically noticeable within 1 to 3 weeks of getting infected, and include:
- Abnormal vaginal discharge with an unpleasant odor
- Burning or itching around the vagina
- Abdominal pain with or without fever
- Pain during sex
- Bleeding between periods
Women are more likely to show symptoms of trichomoniasis making transmission rates higher than in men. While condoms can protect against the STD, the parasite that causes trichomoniasis can infect areas not protected by a condom.
Symptoms may occur within 5 to 28 days of the infections. However, according to the CDC, 70% of infected persons do not develop symptoms. When symptoms appear in women, they often include:
- Vaginal itching
- Vaginal discharge that may be white, gray, yellow, or green
- Itchy, foamy vaginal discharge that may have a fishy smell
- Genital itching or burning
- Frequent urge to urinate
- Pain or burning during urination
- Pain during sex
- Abnormal vaginal bleeding or spotting
While a condom may offer protection, syphilis can infect areas of the body not covered by the condom. The first signs of syphilis may appear about 21 days after contracting the disease but could show up to 90 days later. Different symptoms can develop based on the stage of the disease, but it is highly contagious during the first or primary stage.
- A painless ulcer, also called a chancre, at the site of the infection
- Chancre may be round and firm and may form as one or a group
- Ulcer or chancre that last for 3 to 6 weeks then heal on its own
Secondary stage symptoms may develop weeks or months after the first stage if the disease is not treated.
- Skin rash
- Rash on the inside of the hands or bottom of the feet that do not itch
- Gray or whitish patches of skin on the mouth, armpit, or groin
- Sores inside the mouth, vagina, or anus.
- Hair loss or weight loss
- Swollen lymph glands
- Headaches, muscle aches, or fever
Once the secondary symptoms go away, the infection will remain latent in the body. About 15% of people infected with syphilis may go on to develop tertiary symptoms if the disease is left untreated. It could take as much as 20 years for an infected person to show tertiary signs. During the latent stage, the disease can damage internal organs and may later show these symptoms:
- Joint damage
- Loss of sight
- Problems with movement
- Organ damage, e.g., to the brain, heart, nerve, eyes, liver, or kidney
Hepatitis B is a serious liver infection for which there is no cure. Mild or severe symptoms sometimes appear. Chronic hepatitis B increases the risk of liver cancer or cirrhosis or liver failure. Symptoms in women may include:
- Stomach pain
- Dark-colored urine
- Joint pain
- Loss of appetite/weight loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Fatigue and weakness
- Jaundice (yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes)
- Light-colored stool
Different symptoms of HIV may show based on how far the infection has advanced in the body or how much it weakened the immune system. According to the CDC, women most often contract HIV from their male sex partners and from using IV drugs. It may take 2 to 4 weeks to exhibit symptoms after being infected.
The most common signs are flu-like symptoms such as fever, sore throat, body rash, or severe headaches. The virus then becomes latent or asymptomatic. The virus continues to break down the immune system during this period and can still be transmitted to a sex partner.
The last stage of the infection is when acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) develops making the person vulnerable to diseases, illnesses, and infections. Common symptoms of advanced HIV in women are:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Persistent diarrhea
- Rapid or unexplained weight loss
- Recurrent bacterial or vaginal infections
- Ulcers or sores in the mouth
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Recurring fever, chills, or night sweats
- Coughing or shortness of breath
- Prolonged swelling of the lymph glands
Diagnosing Common STDs
Sexually transmitted diseases can be detected through various tests done at a hospital or health clinic. Home testing kits are also available for private testing.
Bacteria or virus may show up in urine, blood, or fluid samples in persons who show signs or symptoms of an STD. They could show up during regular screenings in people who do not know they have a sexually transmitted infection.
Urine tests: Some STDs, e.g., gonorrhea and chlamydia, can be detected from a urine test.
Blood tests: Blood tests can confirm an HIV, herpes, or hepatitis B infection, or advanced syphilis.
Fluid samples: STD’s such as genital herpes may be detected from fluid samples or tissue from genital warts.
Swab Samples: Some doctors prefer to do swab testing which is a bit more invasive. A sample may be taken from the penis, urethra, vagina, vulva, cervix, rectum, or throat depending on the symptoms. Swab or urine tests are commonly done to diagnose gonorrhea and chlamydia.
Pap smear: A Pap smear is a test done in women to detect human papillomavirus. Changes in cervical tissue or the presence of precancerous cells is a sign of the viral infection. There is currently no test available to check for HPV in men.
Treatment of Common STDs
If you suspect you contracted a sexually transmitted disease, you should get treated right away to prevent complications and transmission.
Bacterial STDs: A course of antibiotics is usually prescribed to treat bacterial infections such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis. Azithromycin, ciprofloxacin, and penicillin are common antibiotics used. Medication should be taken as directed to allow the infection to clear up completely.
Viral STDs: Antiviral drugs can treat some STD’s caused by a virus. Some viral infections such as herpes, HPV, hepatitis B, and HIV have no cure. In such cases, medication is used to relieve symptoms and reduce the risk of transmission. Genital warts can be surgically removed in patients with HPV, but this does not kill the virus.
Parasite STDs: Metronidazole and tinidazole are used in the treatment of trichomoniasis. Although the infection is caused by a parasite, these drugs can effectively treat it.
In addition to taking your medication as prescribed and finishing the course, it is important to re-test within a few weeks or months to ensure the disease is gone. In the case of an infection that has no cure, e.g., HIV, you will have to continue taking medication to suppress symptoms and reduce the chance of passing it to someone else.
Abstinence: Not having vaginal, oral, and anal sex is the best way to avoid getting infected.
Avoid sharing personal items: Some STDs pass between persons who share items such as razors, nail clippers, towels, underwear, or toothbrushes.
Condoms: Use a latex condom each time you have vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
Monogamy: Reduce the number of sexual partners. Having sex with one person only can significantly reduce your risk of contracting an STD.
Vaccination: HPV and hepatitis B can be prevented with vaccines. Boys and girls can begin taking HPV vaccines as early as age 11. Males can stop taking the vaccine at age 21 and females at age 26.
Regular screening: Asymptomatic STDs can be detected during routine screening. Sexually active persons should get tested at least every 3 months to check for infections that may show no signs or symptoms.
Partner notification: Be responsible and tell all sexual partners of any STD so they can get tested and treated, if necessary. This is crucial in preventing re-infection between each other and reducing the spread of STDs to other sexual partners.
Both men and women can pass an STD to their sexual partners. According to the CDC, it is easier for men to transmit certain STDs to women than women to men. These diseases are accelerating especially among gay and bisexual men.
Furthermore, having one STD increases your risk of getting another. While some STDs are treatable others will live in the body forever and continue to cause symptoms or even death, as in the case of HIV.
Unless you choose to abstain from sex, the other preventative measures can help protect you from the laundry list of sexually transmitted diseases and infections.