- It’s common for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) to cause no symptoms.
- That means you could have an STD – and spread it to others – without knowing you’re infected.
- The only way to know for sure if you have an STD is to get tested.
Plenty of illnesses announce their arrival with annoying or even alarming symptoms. But sexually transmitted diseases (better known as STDs) often don’t.
“In general, we say that most STDs are mostly asymptomatic,” Dr. Charlotte Gaydos, a professor in the division of infectious diseases Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told INSIDER.
That means you might have an STD for a long time – potentially spreading it to sexual partners and leaving yourself at risk for health complications – but have no idea you’re infected.
This lack of symptoms is particularly prominent for certain STDs.
For example, most people with chlamydia have no symptoms, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is especially true for women: Up to 80% of women with the infection don’t have them, Gaydos said. About half of women also don’t show gonorrhea symptoms, Gaydos added (but men usually do).
Around 70% of people with trichomoniasis don’t have symptoms, the CDC adds. Human papillomavirus (HPV) doesn’t usually cause symptoms, either. Most people with genital herpes don’t know they have it, because the symptoms may be mild or mistaken for another skin condition. And one in seven Americans living with HIV are unaware of their infection, the US Department of Health and Human Services explains.
Taken together, all these details boil down to a single, critically important message: The only truly reliable way to tell if you have an STD is to get tested.
“You have to look,” Gaydos said. “If you don’t look, you don’t know.”
Getting regular STD tests is the only way to know your status
The CDC’s website has a quiz to help you determine exactly which STD tests you should get, but the basic recommendations are as follows:
- Everyone ages 13 to 64 should be tested at least once for HIV. People who have unprotected sex or who share injection drug equipment should get tested at least once yearly.
- Women younger than 25 (and older women with certain risk factors, like new or multiple sex partners) should get tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea once a year.
- All men who have sex with other men should get tested for syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea at least once a year but more frequently if they have sex with multiple or anonymous partners.
- All pregnant women should get tested for syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis B.
There are, however, ways to reduce your risk of getting STDs in the first place, including reducing your number of sexual partners, being monogamous, and abstaining from sex.
When used properly, condoms are also highly effective in reducing the transmission of STDs, according to the CDC. There’s even a chance you can even find free condoms near where you live.
Untreated STDs can lead to scary complications
Knowing your STD status is important for stopping the spread of the infections between sexual partners, of course. But it also helps you avoid the possible health complications of certain untreated STIs.
For example, untreated chlamydia or gonorrhea may lead to a condition called pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women, Gaydos said. PID can result in infertility, chronic pelvic pain, or potentially deadly ectopic pregnancy, according to the CDC. (That’s when pregnancy occurs outside the uterus, which may cause life-threatening bleeding.) In rare cases, chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause infertility in men, too.
And Gaydos explained that these STDs can remain asymptomatic all the way until the moment they cause these complications.
“Many people who end up with pelvic inflammatory disease have no idea that they have ever had chlamydia,” she said. “They have been asymptomatic all along and never went in for screening and were never treated.”
The good news is that some STDs – including chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis – can be easily cured with the right medications. STDs caused by certain viruses, like herpes and HIV, can’t be cured, but there are medications to help control them.
The best way to ensure you get those treatments when you need them, of course, is a simple STD test.
Not sure where you can get tested? The CDC has a tool that lets you search for STD testing locations by zip code.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.