We at Bustle love giving you tips for how to tap into your sexual potential and troubleshoot when things aren’t going your way in the bedroom. But what about finding solutions to those stressful sexual health situations that inevitably crop up when you’re getting down? Emma Kaywin, a Brooklyn-based sexual health writer and activist, is here to calm your nerves and answer your questions. No gender, sexual orientation, or question is off limits, and all questions will remain anonymous. This week’s topic: signs you might have an STD and should get tested.
Q: I started sleeping with a new guy a few weeks ago and he said he’d gotten tested recently and didn’t have anything. I trusted him at the time, but now I’m not so sure because I just noticed some weird sores in my privates. I’m wondering how to know if what I’m feeling is an STD or something else. I started Google image searching “STD blister” and got super freaked out pretty quickly. I just wanna know if I should be going to the doctor or if this is definitely something unrelated that will go away on its own. Are there symptoms that are just for STDs? And how do you know when you should get tested?
A: Discussing symptoms when you’re talking about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can be a bit complicated. Most symptoms that are associated with a particular STD could also be something else. On the other hand, the majority of people who have an STD are asymptomatic, which means they don’t even know they’re infected. However, there are specific symptoms attached to each viral, bacterial, or parasitic infection that makes up the larger category of STDs. And it is good to know what these potential symptoms are, so that if you happen to notice them in yourself (or someone close to you) you can seek treatment.
1. It Hurts When You Pee
Lots of people notice something’s wrong down there when they pee, because it hurts. The STDs that can cause this are chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis, a parasitic STD you may never have heard of before but which totally exists. If you are experiencing pain during urination, tell your doctor. It may not be an STD, but if it’s not, it’s probably still something that needs treatment (like a urinary tract infection).
2. It Hurts When You Have Sex
You may not hurt when you pee, but if it hurts when you’re having sex, that’s another indication you could be battling an STD. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, and human papillomavirus (HPV, often known as genital warts) all can cause this symptom. If you’re experiencing painful sex, definitely talk to your doctor. There are also a number of non-STD things this could also be, from endometriosis to vulvodynia.
3. Your Vaginal Discharge Is Different Than Usual
Vaginal discharge can mean so many things; it’s basically your body’s way of signaling to you that something is not right — although it can also just change normally based on your menstrual cycle.
But some of the things that can knock your discharge out of whack are STDs. Chlamydia and HPV can cause your discharge to increase, while gonorrhea and trichomoniasis change the look, feel, and/or smell of your discharge. Specifically, if you have gonorrhea, your discharge can turn more yellow than usual. With trichomoniasis, your discharge might turn yellow or gray-green and be frothy, foamy, and smelly. So if you notice that your vaginal discharge has drastically changed amount or has started looking weird, it might be a good time to talk to your doctor about getting tested.
4. Your Vagina Is Itchy
An itchy vagina is another hallmark of things being just off down there. Itching can mean a bunch of different things, but the STD options include gonorrhea, chlamydia, HPV, trichomoniasis, pubic lice (also called crabs), and scabies (which you may not know can be sexually transmitted, but can be).
5. Your Genital Area Is Red
Redness means irritation, which is totally a side effect of STDs — and a ton of other things. Scabies comes with a rash that has small red bumps and blisters with thin red, brown, or gray lines. So if you see this type of redness, definitely go to your doctor for treatment.
6. You Have Warts
Only one STD causes warts, and that’s HPV. Not all strains of HPV cause warts, but if you end up with a strain that does, you’ll notice cauliflower-shaped warts in your genital region. You can go to your doctor to get these removed if you like, but unfortunately your healthcare provider won’t be able to get rid of the virus medically. Luckily, your body usually gets rid of the virus itself within a few months, with most HPV infections getting cleared within two years.
7. You Have Sores
Some STDs can cause sores or blisters. Sores from the herpes simplex virus can show up either in your genital region or around your mouth. These tiny fluid-filled blisters burst, leaving behind painful ulcers that can take up to three weeks to heal up. Luckily these don’t happen that often to most people, and while herpes is currently incurable, there are medications you can take to suppress this unfortunate symptom.
Sores can also be a sign that you have Stage One syphilis. In the first three weeks after being infected with syphilis, people get one or a few sores in their genital region, right where they got infected. These sores are painless, so if you don’t see them you might not even know they are there. However, they are good to notice because if you don’t treat your syphilis early, you’ll have more than small sores to deal with — and unfortunately the later stages are much more medically difficult and can include organ damage, dementia, paralysis, and death. So if you have sores, go get tested ASAP to make sure they aren’t syphilis-related.
8. You Have Pelvic Pain
Pelvic pain can be caused by a lot of different things, but a main culprit is pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID for short. This painful situation is when your reproductive organs get infected. Infection is usually caused by a bacterial STD, specifically chlamydia or gonorrhea. However, you can also get PID from an unclean IUD insertion. So if your pelvis feels not great, go get it checked out by your doctor so you can get any bacterial infection cleaned up.
9. You’re Experiencing Flu-Like Symptoms
Finally, if you think you have the flu (I’m talking fever, chills, headache, achiness, fatigue) but it happens a couple weeks after a sexual encounter, these icky feels could actually be your body fighting off a STD infection. Some people who are infected with HIV get what’s called acute HIV infection, which feels like the flu. Hepatitis C symptoms also include these symptoms, coupled with itchy skin, nausea, darker colored pee, or a yellowing of your skin and whites of your eyes, which is called jaundice. Finally, in addition to itchy feelings, pubic lice can give you a small fever.
So if you feel like you have the flu but also are worried about STDs, it’s a good idea to go get tested to make sure you’re really just dealing with a flu virus and not an STD.
The Bottom Line
STDs are a fact of life for sexually active people. Chances are you’ll encounter one during your life, no matter how much you do your best to practice safe sex. And that is fine, really! However, knowing the signs is important, because the sooner you know you have an STD, the sooner you can get treatment — whether that is a cure for those that are curable, or medication to manage the side effects and prevent transmission for those that currently do not have cures.
Remember that the only true way to know if you have a specific STD is to get tested. So if you notice any of these symptoms, head to your clinic of choice to get confirmation and then get the help you need!
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