The Most Common STDs in Women and Men and Their Symptoms
STD Diseases & Symptoms

The Most Common STDs in Women and Men and Their Symptoms

Everyone who engages in sex, whether oral, anal or vaginal, is vulnerable to STDs or sexually transmitted diseases.

Anyone can contract STDs, either straight, gay, married or single. Although STDs can be avoided by having protected sex using condoms, this is not a full proof method. A sexually active person who experiences any STD symptoms should consult a doctor immediately to get treated. Partners should also be informed, evaluated and treated, if required.

Common STDs

Gonorrhea, syphilis, genital herpes, chlamydia, genital warts, HIV infection and AIDs are some of the most common sexually transmitted diseases seen in both men and women. Although STD symptoms vary depending upon the type of the disease, the most common symptoms of STDs include:

  • genital itching
  • thick, cloudy or bloody discharge from the genitals
  • lower abdominal pain
  • testicular pain in men
  • painful bowel movements
  • abnormal menstrual bleeding in women
  • soreness
  • painful, swollen testicles in men
  • lumps
  • pain during sexual intercourse
  • pain or burning sensation when urinating
  • and flu-like symptoms.

Take our comprehensive quiz to find out if you could have an STD, including individual recommendations!

Genital Herpes

Most people think of herpes as red sores that are painful to the touch. However, most genital herpes does not show symptoms but can still be transmitted to partners. At least one in six adults between 14 and 49 years of age have herpes, with most of them never showing any signs of having the disease. If they do show signs, they are often very mild.

There is no cure for this STD, and condoms don’t completely stop the transmission of the virus. There are several anti-herpes medications available, which can lower the chance of spreading the disease.

Genital Herpes Symptoms

Genital herpes is caused by a special type of virus known as the herpes simplex virus or HSV. This is one of the most highly contagious STDs. The virus enters the body of the host through skin or mucous membranes.

Generally, the symptoms of genital herpes are subtle and often go unnoticed. Pain and itching in the genital area, buttocks and thighs are common signs of genital herpes, along with blisters or ulcers in the genitalia. During the initial infection, some people experience flu-like symptoms like fever, headache, muscle aches and swollen lymph nodes near the groin.

Symptoms of Genital Warts

Genital warts represent another common STD caused by the human papilloma virus or HPV. Common symptoms of genital warts include bleeding during intercourse, swelling in the genitalia and itching. Sometimes several warts form together, creating a shape similar to a cauliflower. Genital warts can also occur in the mouth and throat of a person who indulges in oral sex with an infected person.

Chlamydia

The most common STD in the U.S. is chlamydia with more than 1.7 million cases being reported in 2017. The majority of cases occurred in 15 to 24-year-olds. It’s known as a silent disease because it can lead to ovarian, fallopian tubes and endometrial lining scarring. Scarring can also increase a woman’s risk for ectopic pregnancies and infertility.

However, a week’s worth of antibiotics can completely clear up the infection.

Chlamydia Symptoms

Chlamydia is a bacterium that often infects the genital tract. Early infection shows mild or no symptoms, so the affected person often overlooks it. Common symptoms of the chlamydia infection include lower abdominal pain, painful urination, discharge from penis and vagina and pain in the genitals.

These symptoms are also signs of bacterial vaginosis or a yeast infection, but if you’ve had unprotected sex recently, it’s a good idea to see your doctor and get tested. Untreated chlamydia can lead to damage in the fallopian tubes and uterus, which will also lead to pelvic inflammatory disease. PID can cause scarring in the fallopian tubes, which can lead to infertility. According to the CDC, 24,000 women are infertile each year before of untreated STD.

On top of that, scarring can lead to ectopic pregnancies, which could be fatal for both mom and baby. Chlamydia can lead to premature births and be passed to a baby during a vaginal delivery. When this happens, a baby may have pneumonia or eye infection. Chlamydia also increases the chance of women catching HIV.

Women can protect themselves by getting yearly screenings. It may seem like a bit much, but since it’s an asymptomatic disease that can cause real damage to the reproductive system, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Chlamydia is treatable with a course of antibiotics, especially if you catch it in the early stages.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

This is a sexually transmitted infection, and one the condom can’t protect you from. Most people will catch HPV at some point in their life and never know it. A person can carry the disease and pass it on without any physical symptoms of the disease. Why is that? Some strains will lead to genital warts while others don’t.

HPV isn’t a routine screening tool for women under 30, as in most cases the disease comes and go. If you’re over the age of 30, screening for the infection when you get your Pap smear is a must. That’s because several HPV strains can lead to cervical cancer. An abnormal Pap smear will show changes in the cells, and depending on the kind of cell abnormality you have, your doctor may test you for HPV.

Gonorrhea

This infection is the result of the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacteria, and in 2017, there were over 550,000 cases reported. It’s the second most common STD in the U.S., following chlamydia. The problem with gonorrhea is that it has no symptoms, and untreated gonorrhea could cause pelvic inflammatory disease, inability to get pregnant, scar tissue blocking fallopian tubes and constant stomach pains.

Women who are infected with gonorrhea and pregnant could pass the infection onto their baby during delivery. This could lead to serious health complications for the newborn.

Doctors are considered about the emergence of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea. For gonorrhea that’s not resistant, there is a one-time shot of Ceftriaxone as well as oral antibiotics.

Gonorrhea Symptoms

Like chlamydia, gonorrhea is also caused by bacterial infection of the genital tract. The most common symptom of gonorrhea is cloudy or bloody discharge from the vagina or penis along with frequent urination. Other symptoms include painful intercourse and a burning sensation during urinating.

If untreated, it can also cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and scarring of the reproductive organs. It also increases a person’s chance of catching HIV and may lead to life-altering infections in the body, affecting the joints, blood, brain and heart. A pregnant woman with gonorrhea may have a premature birth or miscarriage. Her unborn child may be underweight and suffer from a blood infection or blindness.

At-risk women are urged to get tested every year, and if you test positive for the disease, a course of antibiotics can cure it.

HIV

A month of being transmitted with HIV, you may feel like you have the flu, but the virus can actually stay hidden for years after the initial infection.

The Mayo Clinic said a person who gets HIV and receives no treatment can live up to 10 years before it becomes AIDS. Still, HIV will lead to immunodeficiency, which increases one’s chance for cancer and other infections. Doctors urge people to get treatment if they suspect they have been exposed to HIV, as many drugs can actually expand a person’s lifespan to a normal range.

On top of that, antiviral medications allow people to engage in sexual intercourse without passing the virus onto their partner.

HIV Infection Symptoms

The human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV virus interferes with the body’s immune system, making it susceptible to other secondary infections, which can eventually lead to AIDS, a life-threatening disease. Early symptoms of HIV are usually normal viral infections including fever, sore throat, headache and swollen lymph nodes. As the infections persist, multiple infections like diarrhea, weight loss, chills and fever are noticed.

Hepatitis B

The U.S. has seen a drop in hepatitis B infections after the 1991 recommendation of routine vaccines to children and, adults who have the disease often find that it clears up on its own. However, for chronic hepatitis B, there is a chance for it to become liver cancer. However, there are quite a few antiviral drugs to prevent this from happening and cure the infection.

Trichomoniasis

This is not a very well-known STD, but it’s extremely common and is the result of a parasite. The CDC estimates that 30 percent of people with the parasite have symptoms, which means you could have it and show no symptoms. If you do have symptoms, you’re likely to experience the following:

  • Burning
  • Itching
  • Soreness
  • Redness
  • Painful urination
  • Vaginal discharge with a fishy smell

Men may experience similar symptoms.

If untreated, it can lead to increased risk of other STDs such as HIV. Pregnant women with trichomoniasis may give birth prematurely or to an underweight baby.

Each time you have sex, you need to use a condom to mitigate the chances of catching this sexually transmitted disease. The CDC doesn’t suggest routine screening for it unless you live in a region where there is a high rate of infection, or you engage in risky sexual behaviors. Like several other STDs, antibiotics will cure you of trichomoniasis, but since you can get re-infected, it’s important for your partner to get tested and treated if positive.

Common STI Symptoms That Doesn’t Always Imply an STD

Itching

Genital itching is often worrisome, as it’s a sign of trichomoniasis, chlamydia, HPV and gonorrhea. However, experts say itching may also be a sign of dermatitis, which can be caused by using certain soaps, materials and pads. Bacterial vaginosis can also cause itching down there. If you’re not sure and have had unprotected sex recently, it’s always a good idea to get checked out.

Genital Bumps or Scales

Most people, when they feel bumps in the genital region, automatically think they are infected with the herpes virus. However, bumps in the genital region may actually be from a hair follicle, causing inflammation and infection. It’s known as folliculitis, which is similar to pimples in nature. They often occur after a person has shaved and sweat and friction from clothing can cause bumps to appear.

Folliculitis shows up in a line or patches along the vulva. They are generally round, smooth bumps about two millimeters in size. Using lubricants and new condoms can also lead to contact dermatitis in the region, causing these bumps to appear.

Since it’s not genital warts, they tend to clear up on their own.

Lip Bumps

Another common herpes-like condition is called Fordyce spots, small yellow bumps found on the genitals and around the lips. They are the result of the body’s oil-producing glands that maintain moisture in the area. They also require no treatment.

Unusual Bleeding or Spotting After Sex

When women have unusual bleeding after the sex act, it can be quite scary. After all, this sign is tied to both chlamydia and gonorrhea. However, it’s also tied to other things such as uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts and so much more. If it happens regularly or you have pain along with it, you need to see your doctor right away.

Odd-Smelling Vaginal Discharge

Vaginal discharge is often mistaken for a sexually transmitted disease symptom, but it’s a very common occurrence. It’s actually the body’s way to keep the vagina moist and clean. The thickness that occurs will vary because of the hormone fluctuations taking place. The discharge can look white or clear in color and be even a little watery, and nothing to be too concerned with.

However, if the color or consistency changes or you’re also experiencing itchiness along with it, you need to see your doctor to rule out the possibility of an STD.

Odd Smelling Pee

Many urinary tract infection symptoms are also signs for an STI such as the frequent need to pee, blood in urine, odd smell and pain while peeing. In most cases, these symptoms are due to a bladder infection and not an STI.

Pain During Intercourse

Bacterial vaginosis has many STI-like symptoms such as painful intercourse, itching and vaginal discharge. However, pain during intercourse is also possible when the vagina’s bacteria not in balance.

Still, if you notice any one of these symptoms, you should still be seen by your doctor. While in most cases, it won’t be a sexually transmitted infection. If you have had unprotected sex recently with someone new or suspect your partner has cheated on you, better safe than sorry. Get tested to ensure you don’t need an STD treatment.

Other Common Causes of STD-Like Symptoms

Bacterial Vaginosis

Bacterial vaginosis is similar to a yeast infection but is the result of a good and bad bacteria imbalance. In most cases, there are no symptoms, but when they do appear, they can cause itching in the private region and a white, foul-smelling discharge.

Irritants

It’s not uncommon to introduce an irritant the body cannot tolerate – be it a douche, soap, cream, detergent, fabric softener, scented toilet paper, etc. However, if you are intolerant to something, most times, the itching won’t just occur in the private region but other areas of the body as well.

Pubic Lice

Pubic lice are small creatures that look similar to a crab, which can make the pubic region very itchy. While they are mostly seen in the pubic region, they can also attach themselves to densely hairy body parts.

Over-the-counter lotion can kill the lice, but it’s always best to talk to a doctor and get a prescription.

Skin Issues

There are many skin-related problems that can cause itching, such as psoriasis and eczema. These conditions can also cause itchiness and redness in one’s private areas. Eczema, which is known as atopic dermatitis, often occurs in people with allergies or asthma. It’s noted by its scaly texture and rash. Psoriasis, which is notable by the red skin and itchy feeling on the joints and scalp, can also occur in the vaginal region.

Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)

The bacteria that cause a urinary tract infection can happen anywhere in the tract – bladder, ureters, kidneys and urethra. A UTI, which if left untreated, will lead to irritation, severe itching, pain while urination, an urgency to use the bathroom and pelvic pain. A round of antibiotics is the only method of treatment to cure you of this problem.

Yeast Infection

Yeast is already found in the vagina and, while it doesn’t typically cause a problem, a plethora of it can lead to an infection. This infection is known as vaginal yeast infection and happens to three in four women at least once in their life.

Doctors may prescribe a round of antibiotics to address the itchy, burning and discharge that is caused by the yeast infection.

How are STDs treated?

The treatment of a STD varies depending on the type of STD. Some STDs require a person to take antibiotic medication either by mouth or by injection; other STDs require a person to apply creams or special solutions on the skin. Some STDs, such as genital herpes and HIV (which leads to AIDS), cannot be cured, but only controlled with medication.

How can I protect myself from STDs?

Considering how widely preventable STDs are, there are a number of things that you can employ to further lower the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted condition:

  • Use a condom!
  • talk with/examine your partner
  • limit your number of sexual partners
  • practice monogamy
  • choose your sex partners with care
  • know the signs and symptoms of STDs
  • don't share vibrators or other sex toys
  • think about your alcohol and drug use
  • abstinence
  • regular testing
  • vaccinations for preventable STDs

The Importance of a Parent-Child Relationship in the Context of STD Prevention

It’s very important that parents talk to their teenagers about sex, as it’s the first step to preventing an STD. The topic can be gradually introduced. Begin early – preschool age – about safe touch and private parts. As a child ages, parents can adapt the topic to more adult ones.

While talking about sex and STDs is a rather touchy subject in society, it’s imperative for parents to stop avoiding the topic to protect their children. While the best prevention is abstaining from sex – intercourse or contact – it’s good for children to know how to best protect themselves if they do decide to become sexually active.

Children should also know that participating in dangerous activities such as drinking alcohol or using drugs increases their chances of engaging in unsafe sex. They should also be made aware that if a person says no, that does not give them the right to continue their sexual advances.

The best thing a parent can do is educate their child about how to stay safe. Sexual education can begin at a young age and be tailored to fit the child’s age. Since some STDs are incurable, the best medicine is knowledge.

Local STD Testing and STD Information

A person with an STD should seek immediate medical help. Local health departments are the best places to have testing for STDs. Many counties also run free STD clinics for their local citizens. Anonymous STD testing is also available in certain clinics. National HIV and STD Testing Resources help STD patients to locate HIV and STD testing and STD vaccine centers around the United States.

The American Social Health Association, Center for Young Women’s Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are some of the reputed organizations that offer information on STD and sexual health.

Prevention is always better than cure. Safe sex, regular STD screening and Pap tests for women between 21 and 66 years help to prevent STDs to a great extent. STD vaccination is now also available to prevent two specific STDs: HPV and Hepatitis B. Once a person is diagnosed with a STD, his/her sexual partner should also be informed so that he/she can have the STD diagnosed and treated if required.

Written by Mark Riegel, MD

Latest Stories

Here’s what we've been up to recently.

Concerned about an STD?

Help stop the spread of STDs by knowing your status. Get tested today!