Expert Answers Factual Answers to Your Sexual Health Questions
What symptoms are common for STD infections and how can you tell if you have an STD?
Lisa Oldson, MD on August 15, 2011
Those are great questions.
Many times, STDs show no signs or symptoms at all. Our lives would be a lot easier if STDs had distinct, easy-to-identify signs or symptoms...but that’s not always the case. In fact, some STDs are asymptomatic (no symptoms) – at least at first. And when symptoms do occur, they may resemble those of other conditions, which can delay proper diagnosis and treatment.
Did you know, for example, that more than 50 million Americans have HSV-2 – the virus that causes most genital herpes infections – but most aren’t aware of their infection? That’s according to a 2006 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
That means there are many people who have genital herpes or another sexually transmitted infections, and they don’t know it...and often they’re contagious. So there’s a chance that they’ll not only spread to others whatever condition they may have; but, later in life, they might also suffer serious health problems that can result from untreated STD infections.
I encourage you to browse our Expert Guide to STDs for an overview of the most common STD signs and symptoms, as well as STD risk factors and how to prevent them. That said, keep in mind that the only way you’ll know your STD status for sure is to get tested for the most common STDs including herpes 1 & 2, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia. If you’re sexually active, getting tested at least once a year is a good rule of thumb. Of course, using latex condoms or dental dams during any sexual activity with someone who may be infected is smart, too.
To answer your second concern, yes…some STD symptoms, like abnormal vaginal discharge (a symptom of chlamydia or gonorrhea infection) can be mistaken for a yeast infection. In fact, abnormal vaginal discharge (from yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, STDs or other infections) is a common complaint of women, accounting for 10 million doctor office visits each year.
And because abnormal vaginal discharge occurs so frequently, some women turn to over-the-counter creams and other treatments rather than getting tested for STDs. This isn’t the best course of action, however. Many times women misdiagnose their condition and miss a chance to get tested, and if needed, get necessary treatment to cure or manage a sexually transmitted infection. Visiting a doctor for an exam and to get tested for STDs is the only way to know the cause of abnormal vaginal discharge.
Vaginal discharge may also simply indicate another type of non-STD infection or could even be normal for your body. To be on the safe side, I encourage you to visit your doctor who can examine you and determine if you have a yeast infection, STD or something else.
I appreciate the broad nature of your question…I’m sure there are a lot of other people with similar concerns.
- CDC: STD Fact Sheet
- CDC: Bacterial Vaginosis Fact Sheet
- CDC: 10 Ways STDs Impact Women Differently From Men
Dr. Oldson is Medical Director of the Analyte Physicians Group. She is on staff at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, as well as Clinical Instructor at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. Her areas of expertise include STDs (with a particular clinical emphasis on herpes), women's health, preventive medicine, diabetes, obesity and weight management, and mood and anxiety disorders. Dr. Oldson was educated at Rush Medical College and completed her residency at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, IL.