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Hidden STI Symptoms

There aren’t many things more alarming than a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Just the thought of one doesn’t sound fun at all, never mind having to live with it. But that’s only half the story – an STI (also called a sexually transmitted disease (STD) – is often so mild you might not even notice.

So how do we deal with them? A quick glance downstairs isn’t always enough. If you’ve had unprotected sex you could still have an STI even without symptoms. You could be harming your own health and potentially your sexual partners’ and not even know.

That’s why getting regular tests is essential. But the first step in protecting yourself is to educate yourself. Here we explain what the symptoms of STIs can look like and how you can treat them.

What are the most common STIs?

The most common STIs in the UK include:

  • Genital herpes: an STI caused by a herpes simplex virus infecting the skin on and around your genitals and anus. It can cause blisters and sores to break out on your skin but often causes no noticeable symptoms.
  • Genital warts: an STI caused by human papillomavirus infecting the skin on and around your genitals and anus. The infection can cause warts to form on your skin but some people can be infected and have no symptoms.
  • Chlamydia: an STI caused by an infection of a bacterium called Chlamydia trachomatis. Chlamydia can cause no noticeable symptoms but is a serious infection that can lead to infertility in men and women.
  • Gonorrhoea: also called the clap, gonorrhoea is an STI caused by an infection by the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium in the genitals, anus or mouth. Gonorrhoea can cause no symptoms but can lead to serious complications including heart problems.
  • Trichomoniasis: is an STI caused by an infection by a parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. Trichomoniasis can cause no noticeable symptoms but can harm your health. In men it can lead to prostate inflammation that can progress into cancer.

Generally, the most common STI symptoms include:

  • Pain when you urinate
  • A discharge from your penis or anus
  • Itching on and around your genitals or anus
  • Blisters and sores on and around your genitals or anus
  • A rash on and around your genitals or anus
  • Unusual lumps or skin growths on and around your genitals or anus

These are some of the most common STD symptoms to be aware of but they are far from all the symptoms STIs can cause. And you can have an STI without having these symptoms. We’ll explain more about each STI below and the symptoms they can cause.

Where to get tested for an STI

If you have any reason to think you could have an STI you should get yourself tested. Reasons to think you have an STI can include:

  1. You have symptoms that could be an STI
  2. Someone you have had sex with has symptoms that could be an STI
  3. You’ve had unprotected sex

Even if you don’t think you have an STI, if you are sexually active it’s a good idea to have yourself tested every year to make sure you stay on top of your sexual health.

Where can I get an STI/STD test? The best place to be tested for STIs is a Sexual Health Clinic. You can visit your doctor but they will likely refer you to a Sexual Health Clinic. So it’s faster to go straight to a clinic.

Find STI/STD testing near me: This handy link will help you find your nearest Sexual Health Clinic.

Genital herpes

Genital herpes is caused by an infection of a herpes simplex virus in your skin cells. You catch genital herpes through skin-to-skin contact – most often through oral, vaginal or anal sex.

What are the symptoms of herpes?

The most common symptoms of genital herpes include:

  • Blisters or sores on the skin on and around your genitals, thighs, buttocks and anus. These can be itchy and painful, and often burst and leak fluid which forms a crust over the sores
  • Itching and pain on and around your genitals or anus
  • Pain when peeing
  • Flu-like symptoms including swollen glands, chills and a fever

Can genital herpes have no symptoms?

Yes, you can catch the herpes virus that causes genital herpes without knowing it. In up to 80% of cases the infection causes no symptoms or symptoms too mild to notice. Even if you have no herpes symptoms you can still be contagious and pass the infection on to others.

How is genital herpes treated?

Unfortunately, genital herpes can’t be cured. Once the virus infects you, you have it for life. The virus lies dormant most of the time but periodically it reactivates and causes a new outbreak of symptoms.

Although genital herpes can’t be cured you can take antiviral medications like valaciclovir and Valtrex that can help you manage the infection. These antiviral medications can make outbreaks less likely to happen. They can also shorten and reduce the severity of outbreaks that do occur.

Genital warts

Genital warts are caused by an infection from a virus called a human papillomavirus, usually shortened to HPV. Over 170 different versions of the virus have been found but only some of them cause you to develop genital warts.

You catch HPV infections through vaginal and anal sex, sharing sex toys and sometimes from oral sex (although this is rare).

What are the symptoms of genital warts?

The HPV infections that can give you genital warts can cause the following genital warts symptoms:

  • Warts on and around your genitals and anus. The warts are usually small in size and can be flesh-coloured or darker. Sometimes they cluster together to cause a cauliflower-outcrop on your skin
  • Itching and discomfort around your genitals or anus
  • Bleeding from your genitals or anus

Can genital warts have no symptoms?

Of the types of HPV infection that cause genital warts, some people can be infected but never develop warts or any other symptoms although they can still pass the infection on to others.

How are genital warts treated?

If you have a type of HPV infection that causes genital warts you will usually have the infection for life. In some cases your immune system can permanently kill the virus but more often the virus remains in your skin. It lies dormant most of the time but can reactivate periodically and cause a new outbreak of warts.

There are a range of genital warts treatments including:

  • Using a topical cream or liquid that helps your body fight the infection and clear your warts
  • Having your warts surgically removed
  • Having your warts frozen and then surgically removed
  • Having your warts removed with a laser

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is an infection caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. It can infect your penis, anus, throat and eyes. You catch chlamydia from unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex.

What are the symptoms of chlamydia?

The most common chlamydia symptoms include:

  • Itching and burning on and around your genitals and anus
  • A burning pain when peeing
  • Pain in your testicles
  • Pain in and around your anus
  • A discharge from your penis or anus – this can be white, cloudy or watery

Can chlamydia have no symptoms?

Although chlamydia can cause symptoms, in most cases it doesn’t cause any. Chlamydia is the most common STI in the UK too, so if you’ve ever had unprotected sex there’s a chance you may have chlamydia and don’t know it.

Although chlamydia usually doesn’t cause any symptoms you still need to take it seriously. Chlamydia can cause long-term harm to your health such as reducing your fertility.

How is chlamydia treated?

Thankfully, chlamydia is easily treated with a course of antibiotics. You usually take one course over 10 days and then a second course may be required to fully kill the infection.

Gonorrhoea

Gonorrhoea is an infection caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It infects your mucous membranes like your urethra (the tube inside your penis that carries urine and semen) and your anus, rectum, eyes or throat.

What are the symptoms of gonorrhoea?

The most common gonorrhoea symptoms include:

  • A burning pain when peeing
  • Itching around the penis or anus
  • Inflammation or a dull pain in the testicles
  • A yellow-green discharge from the penis or anus

Can gonorrhoea have no symptoms?

Roughly 10% of men who have gonorrhoea have no symptoms. However, the infection can still harm you even if you have no symptoms. Gonorrhoea can spread to other parts of your body and can lead to infertility and other serious conditions like sepsis.

How is gonorrhoea treated?

Although gonorrhoea is a serious infection it can be treated quickly and easily with a single dose of antibiotics given as either an injection or an oral tablet. In some cases a second dose is required but one is usually enough.

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis is an STI caused by infection of a tiny parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. The parasite can infect your urethra (the tube inside your penis that carries urine and semen), the head of your penis and sometimes your prostate gland.

You catch trichomoniasis by having unprotected vaginal sex with someone who has the infection.

What are the symptoms of trichomoniasis?

The most common symptoms of trichomoniasis include:

  • Pain when peeing or ejaculating
  • Soreness, swelling and redness around the head of your penis
  • Needing to urinate more often than usual
  • A thin, white discharge from your penis

Can trichomoniasis have no symptoms?

Around half of the people who have trichomoniasis never develop symptoms. People without symptoms can still pass the infection on and it can still harm their health.

How is trichomoniasis treated?

Trichomoniasis can be easily treated with an antibiotic called metronidazole. You usually take it twice a day for five to seven days.

So remember, just because you don’t experience any symptoms and everything looks good down there doesn’t mean you’re completely in the clear. STIs don’t always cause noticeable symptoms but they can still damage your health.

The good news is that most STIs can be treated easily and effectively. And while some STIs like genital herpes and genital warts do stay with you they can be managed with prescription medication and other treatments.

If you’re sexually active, you should also have yourself checked out every 12 months at a Sexual Health Clinic to stay on top of your sexual health. This is in addition to being aware of STIs and using protection.