6 STDs/STIs you can have without knowing it
The medical community has made progress in promoting healthy conversations about sex, but you wouldn’t be alone if you feel uncomfortable speaking with your medical provider about your sexual health.
When it comes to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), avoiding these conversations could lead to problems down the road for you and your sexual partner(s). While bacterial and viral STIs can cause symptomatic infections, some people have minimal symptoms, or none at all, so you could have an STI without realizing it.
By educating yourself about STIs and getting screened, you take a courageous step toward protecting yourself, your sexual partner(s) and any future children.
Here are six STIs you could have without symptoms, some of which can lead to potentially serious health complications:
Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
Characteristics: This viral STI is known to cause warts in the anal and genital regions, though it may be asymptomatic. If you are healthy, your body can usually fight off the infection on its own. On the other hand, HPV can increase your risk of developing cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus or throat.
Treatment: In addition to practicing safe sex and having appropriate screening (like Pap tests), ask your medical provider if you are eligible to receive the HPV vaccine. The vaccine is effective in preventing infection and related complications.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
Characteristics: HIV is a viral STI that can cause fatigue, fever, swollen lymph nodes or a sore throat in its early stages. Even if you have no noticeable symptoms, the virus damages the immune system over time. Without treatment, you could develop serious complications from common bacteria, viruses and fungi that your body would otherwise be able to fight off.
Treatment: There is currently no cure or vaccine for HIV, but your medical provider can prescribe a treatment called antiretroviral therapy to help your body manage the infection. Antiretroviral therapy suppresses HIV so your immune system can rebuild itself and maintain a stable level of functioning.
Characteristics: This viral STI most commonly causes recurring outbreaks of ulcers around the genital and anal regions. Even without visible symptoms, it can spread between sexual partners.
Treatment: Like HIV, genital herpes stays with you for life. No vaccine exists to prevent genital herpes, but antiviral medications can decrease the number of outbreaks and shorten their duration when they occur.
Chlamydia and Gonorrhea
Characteristics: These two bacterial STIs can cause symptoms like urethral, cervical/vaginal and rectal inflammation and discharge. But they are often asymptomatic, particularly in women and when present at sites like the throat or rectum.
Without treatment, the infection in women can spread to the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries, leading to infertility, chronic pelvic pain and other pregnancy complications. If the infection is not treated properly, pregnant women can give the infection to their baby during delivery, and the baby could develop eye infections or pneumonia.
Treatment: A timely diagnosis is key to prevent spread to sexual partners and further complications. Chlamydia and gonorrhea can be cured with an appropriate course of antibiotics.
Characteristics: Syphilis is a bacterial STI that can cause painless ulcers in the anal and genital regions and rashes on the body, palms of the hands and soles of the feet. In rarer cases, it can lead to meningitis, vision and hearing loss and even stroke. Without a diagnosis and proper treatment, you can develop complications many years after the initial infection.
Among pregnant women, untreated syphilis can have dire consequences for an unborn baby and can result in stillbirths. If the baby survives, they can develop short- and long-term abnormalities of the skin, bones, eyes, nervous system and other organs.
Treatment: Syphilis can be cured with an appropriate course of antibiotics (usually penicillin). An early diagnosis is essential to preventing spread and complications. Why should I be screened for STIs?
Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis cases are on the rise across the United States. If you are sexually active, getting screened for STIs could help identify and treat any hidden infections before they harm your well-being or spread to your sexual partner(s). Your medical provider’s screening recommendations will vary depending on your age and lifestyle.
What factors increase my risk of getting an STI?
There are a variety of factors that can increase your chances of getting an STI, including having unprotected sex; having sex with new, multiple or anonymous sexual partners; or having sex while under the influence of recreational drugs like methamphetamines.
What can I do to prevent getting an STI?
When you engage in sexual activity with others, particularly in non-monogamous relationships, make sure you use appropriate protection.
When possible, have open conversations with your sexual partner(s) and your medical provider about sexual history and practices. These dialogues can help alleviate fears and stigma surrounding STIs and guide the type and frequency of screening measures for you and your partner(s).
The bottom line
If you're sexually active, don’t wait to get screened for STIs. All it takes is a simple screening to ensure safer sex and give you peace of mind about your sexual health.