There were more than 2 million cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in 2017 — a record high number, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But that number may actually be higher, as there are a number of STDS without symptoms, causing people to go undiagnosed for months or even years.
Doctors agree that regular screenings and protective measures — that is, condoms — are vital for sexually active people to avoid contracting STDs, or STIs. Because, although we're lucky to live in a modern world where many of these diseases have either cures or treatments, it's important to realize that not all STDs will make themselves known. In fact, several of the most common STDs don't show any symptoms or show very few symptoms.
If it's been a while since your last screening, you should take note of these symptomless STDs.
Chlamydia is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI) in the United States, with 1,708,569 cases reported to the CDC in 2017. Most cases are diagnosed in young people between 15 and 24 years old.
“Chlamydia is responsible for something called a silent disease,” Dr. Adeeti Gupta, M.D., founder of Walk In GYN Care, tells Landcruisers. “Chlamydia infection can result in scarring of the fallopian tubes, ovaries, [and] endometrial lining, which increases the risk of future ectopic pregnancy and tubal infertility.”
The good news is that for the majority of people, a week of antibiotics leads to a complete cure.
Gonorrhea is an infection caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae, explains Dr. Gupta. More than 550,000 cases were reported to the CDC last year, making it the second most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States.
Most women with gonorrhea don’t have any symptoms, according to the CDC. Leaving gonorrhea untreated can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, scar tissue that blocks the fallopian tubes, difficulty getting pregnant, and chronic abdominal pain. Pregnant women can also transmit the infection to their baby during delivery, which can cause serious problems in an infant.
Gonorrhea is getting harder to treat because it’s becoming resistant to antibiotics. Current treatment for the disease is to give a one-time injection of the antibiotic Ceftriaxone in addition to oral antibiotics, Gupta says.
HIV sometimes presents with flu-like symptoms about a month after transmission, but otherwise can go undetected for weeks, months, or years.
According to the Mayo Clinic, when a person has contracted the virus and doesn’t receive antiretroviral treatment, it takes a decade on average to turn into AIDS. However, HIV still causes immunodeficiency that can raise the risk of infection and cancer. “Treatment is strongly advised regardless of whether people have symptoms of HIV, as they can have a normal lifespan if they are on treatment and suppress the HIV virus,” Dr. Connie Celum, M.D., MPH, Professor of Global Health & Medicine at UW Medicine, tells Landcruisers.
Antiretroviral medications also mean that a person with HIV won’t be able to pass on the virus to other people, explains Christine M. Johnson, M.D., M.P.H., Medical Director at University of Washington STD Prevention Training Center.
For those who are higher risk of getting HIV, an HIV prevention option called PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is also available, and reduces HIV infection rates by 90 percent, Dr. Celum says.
If the first thing that comes to mind when you hear herpes is painful, red sores, think again. “Silent genital herpes may never show any symptoms, however, may still be transmitted to your partner, although the risk is small,” explains Dr. Gupta.
More than one in six adults between ages 14 and 49 have herpes, and the CDC says that most people with herpes never show symptoms, or only show mild symptoms.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a cure for herpes and condoms don’t fully prevent against the virus. There are anti-herpes medications that are available, and without active sores, it’s unlikely to spread from one partner to another.
Trichomoniasis is caused by a protozoan parasite called Trichomoniasis vaginalis. Women with it may sometimes experience pain with urination or intercourse, redness, burning or itching, or smelly vaginal discharge.
But more commonly, they don’t experience any symptoms at all, Dr. Kecia Gaither, MD, MPH, FACOG, double board-certified in OB-GYN and Maternal Fetal Medicine, Director of Perinatal Services at NYC Health + Hospitals/Lincoln, tells Landcruisers. “Untreated it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, or in pregnant women can cause preterm labor,” she adds.
Treatment is as simple as a course with the antibiotic Flagyl, but you’ll have to see your doctor to get diagnosed first.
Almost all men and women will get one of the 150 viruses under the HPV umbrella in their lives, according to the CDC. Most of the time, the virus clears on its own. When it does not, however, it can lead to genital warts and cancers of the cervix, vagina, vulva, penis and anus.
There is no cure for an HPV virus that sticks around, which is why the vaccine is so critical for sexually active people. “The HPV vaccine prevents acquiring up to nine types of HPV, including the most common types of HPV that are associated with cervical cancer,” Dr. Celum says.
Routine vaccination for children has been recommended since 1991, which is why hepatitis B in the United States has dropped to just 3,218 reported cases as of 2016, per the CDC. Even still, most cases in adults clear on their own.
For those who the virus turns chronic, it can be a real problem. “In some people who have chronic hepatitis B for years, it can lead to liver cancer,” Dr. Celum says. But there is treatment available. “There are several antiviral drugs that are highly effective against hepatitis B.”