If you’re heading back to campus this fall, maybe pack your laptop bag with condoms and antibiotics. It’s back to school time and the rate of sexually transmitted infections in the US has never been higher. The CDC reports that STDs are on the rise in the US for the fourth consecutive year with 110 million Americans infected, 20 million new infections annually, and half of new infections occurring in Americans aged 15 to 24. Life is stressful, and you’ve got enough on your plate without inadvertently taking on a microbiology extra credit assignment in your pants. We’ve compiled a handy cheat sheet of the most common STD warning signs to let you know when it’s time to skip your freshman Shakespeare seminar and get thee to a student health center.
We asked an expert to identify the most common STD warning signs and got schooled hard and fast that we were asking the wrong question. If you’re waiting for your crotch to send up a signal flare that you’ve got an STD, you could be putting yourself and your sexual partners at serious risk, says Mellissa Withers, a professor at the Institute for Global Health at the USC Keck School of Medicine.
“As a public health professional, the biggest point I would like to make is that most STDs have no symptoms. You could be infected and spreading it without having any symptoms,” Withers says. “Even genital herpes, people think you have to have had some sort of sore and that’s absolutely not the case. If you do have an STD, some symptoms could show up within a few days, but others could take weeks or even months to show up.”
Even scarier? The most common sexually transmitted infection, Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), is also one with very few obvious symptoms. “The vast majority of the population, once they have any sexual contact, will have HPV,” Withers says. A full 80 percent of sexually active Americans will contract HPV at some points in their lives, and you may not know unless you contracted one of the strains that causes genital warts.
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As far as the symptoms we can see, feel, and, in some cases, smell? “Discharge, itching, burning, rashes, sores or lesions,” Withers says. “Painful urination is another big one. Painful sex when the infection is a little more advanced. Sometimes you can even get flu like symptoms like a fever.”
Sores or lesions
Bumps of any kind on or around your “down there” are one of the most obvious signs that you’ve picked up some uninvited guests.
Herpes blisters usually appear around the genitals, anus, or mouth within 20 days of infection but could take years to show up. Genital warts are usually white or skin colored and are sometimes described as looking like tiny cauliflowers. People with early stage syphilis may notice firm but painless round bumps near the site of the infection. Those in the secondary stage may see a rash on their hands, feet, or back. And if you’re thinking syphilis is an old-timey disease that no one gets anymore, Withers says it’s time to think again. Syphilis infection rates are through the roof in the past few years, with the CDC reporting that rates of the primary and secondary syphilis infections in the US have gone up 74 percent since 2012.
You might just have the flu, but if you’ve recently had unprotected sex, and are experiencing symptoms like fever, chills, aches, night sweats, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes it could be a sign of an STD. Flu-like symptoms occur in 40-90 percent of people newly infected with HIV within 2-4 weeks, but the virus can take up to three months to show up on a rapid antibody test. Secondary syphilis infections (those that have gone untreated in the first few weeks) can lead to symptoms like fatigue, joint pain, headaches, fever, and swollen lymph glands, Withers says. Hepatitis A infection can cause loss of appetite, stomach pain, vomiting, fever, and fatigue as well.
Feeling wet but not in a sexy way? Like, at all? Withers says unusual discharge from your penis or vagina could be a sign of a bacterial sexually transmitted infection like gonorrhea, chlamydia, or trichomoniasis. Men with gonorrhea may see a white, yellow or green discharge unceremoniously dripping from their penises. Women may see increased discharge overall or bleeding between periods. Chlamydia can cause discharge in men and women that ranges from cloudy to white to yellow. Trichomoniasis discharge can be white, yellow, or green and carry a “fishy” smell.
Painful urination or sex
Gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, genital warts, and herpes infections all make the list when it comes to STDs that put the “ee” in peeing and the “oy” in coitus. Pain during sex can also be a sign of STD-related pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women which can lead to infertility, ectopic pregnancies, or long-term pain.
Aches and pains
Lower abdominal pain can be a sign of PID, Hepatitis B, trichomoniasis, or gonorrhea. Chlamydia can cause painful, swollen testicles, and herpes can cause swollen lymph nodes in the groin area. Syphilis can cause joint pain too. And then, of course, there’s gonococcal arthritis. It’s a thing.
Are we being tested on this?
Let’s hope so.
“The best way to keep these STDs from infecting more people is for people to get tested and for people to take a more proactive approach to their sexual health,” Withers says. “The majority of these STDs are very treatable. You take some antibiotics and you can get rid of them pretty easily.”
We all know that one thing can lead to another, and that’s true for STDs as well. “Once you have one, it’s much easier to acquire another one,” Withers says. “Partially because your immune system is compromised. Or once you have an open sore or some kind of lesion, it’s easier to acquire another one.”
One final fun fact? Withers says women are at higher risk than men overall. “It’s much easier to transmit many STDs from a male to a female rather than the other way around,” Withers says. “So women have a higher rate of acquiring the infection as compared to men.”
So, everybody just relax, cover every genital you see with latex, and have a great school year.
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