Five common STDs that affect men and women and symptoms

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are common among men and women who are sexually active. This article will explore the most common STDs as well as their symptoms and when to see a doctor.

A couple consulting a doctor over a sexually transmitted infection (STI)

STDs affect many people in the world today. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1 million STDs are contracted every day worldwide. It makes it worst that most of the cases are asymptomatic.5

Among the most common STDs that affect the population are human papillomavirus (HPV), gonorrhoea, syphilis, chlamydia and herpes.

STDs refer to over 35 infectious microorganisms that are primarily transmitted through sexual activities like vaginal-penile penetration sex, anal sex, oral sex and kissing.2

STDs are also commonly referred to as STIs (sexually transmitted infections). However, there is a slight difference between the two terms. 

STI is when a sexually transmitted microorganism infects a person, while STD occurs when that infection causes symptoms and damages to the organs and systems of the body.

In this article, we review some common STDs that occur in men and women as well as their symptoms. 

Gonorrhoea

Gonorrhoea is a common bacterial STD. Both men and women can contract gonorrhoea, and it often affects the rectum, vagina, urethra, throat cervix and throat. It can be spread via vaginal, anal or oral sex.

The bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae causes gonorrhoea. It usually thrives in warm, moist areas of the body. Even though it can affect people of all ages, gonorrhoea is more common among teenagers and young adults aged 15-24. 

Gonorrhoea can be treated using antibiotics. But, if untreated, gonorrhoea can cause health complications such as fertility issues.

Symptoms of gonorrhoea

You may not notice any symptoms if you are infected with gonorrhoea. More men show symptoms; however, only about 20% of women show symptoms. 

Some symptoms of gonorrhoea include:

  • Burning sensation or pain during urination
  • Vaginal or penile discharge, which could be watery, yellowish, greenish, white or beige
  • Pain when defecating
  • Testicular pain or swelling
  • Bleeding from the rectum
  • Heavier periods
  • Pain during penetrative sex
  • Increased frequency or urgency of urination
  • Soreness and itchiness in the anus

Note:

Being asymptomatic doesn’t mean you cannot transmit the infection.

People that do not show symptoms of gonorrhoea may be more likely to transfer it to their sexual partners since they are not aware of their medical condition.

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

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Almost all sexually active adults will get HPV at one point or the other in their lifetime. This shows how common this viral infection is. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), HPV is the most commonly transmitted sexual infection in the United States. Also, the prevalence of oral HPV among adults aged 18-69 years was 7.3%.1

More than 200 types (strains) of HPV exist, with over 40 linked to the oral cavity and genital area infections (e.g., the vagina, vulva, scrotum, penis, anus cervix and rectum).4

There are also other types of HPV that are not sexually transmitted and can cause warts like plantar warts and hand warts. 

Some HPV types are not harmful and usually resolve on their own. However, some others cause symptoms and can be harmful. For instance, HPV types 6 and 11 can cause genital warts, while HPV types 16 and 18 can lead to cancers like cervical cancer and anal cancer.

Fortunately, there are HPV vaccines (e.g., Gardasil 9 and Cervarix) that can help protect against the HPV strains that cause genital warts and cervical cancer.3

Symptoms of human papillomavirus

Some symptoms of human papillomavirus include:

  • Genital warts (appear as flat, small cauliflower-like lesions in the vulva, penis, groin around the anus and on the vagina or cervix)
  • Plantar warts (appear as small, benign growths underneath the foot)
  • Common warts (appear as raised, roughened bumps that may be painful, usually on the hands and fingers)
  • Flat warts (appear as small, smooth, raised lesions on any part of the body; they are also hardly visible)

Syphilis

Like gonorrhoea, syphilis is a bacterial infection that can spread via sexual contact. It usually occurs in four stages: primary, secondary, third or latent, and late stage.

The major symptom noticed during the primary stage is a painless sore, which can look like ingrown hair, a cut or a harmless bump. 

Syphilis can advance from the primary to the secondary phase, which is characterised by rashes on the body and sores on the vagina, mouth and anus.

The third (latent) stage can last for the rest of a person’s life. Symptoms usually disappear in this stage. However, the disease can advance to the fourth and last stage in a small percentage of people.

The last stage of syphilis infection is characterised by nerve and organ damage. It may cause brain problems, heart diseases, and mental health conditions in some cases. 

There is also available treatment for syphilis. Your doctor may prescribe some effective antibiotics medicines for you. If you start treatments earlier, they will work faster to cure the medical condition.

Symptoms of syphilis

Some symptoms of syphilis include:

  • Fever
  • Sore throat
  • Muscle aches
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Aching joints
  • Patches that look like warts around the genitals or skin folds

Herpes

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Herpes is a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two main types of herpes simplex virus- HSV 1 and HSV 2.

Both HSV 1 and HSV 2 can cause genital herpes. However, HSV 2 is the primary culprit in genital herpes, while HSV 1 is the main cause of oral herpes. 

Herpes is easily transmitted from one person to another. According to the World Health Organisation, about 3.7 billion people worldwide have HSV 1, while an estimated 491 million people are infected by HSV 2.6

Herpes is usually spread via skin-to-skin contact. People with herpes blisters are more contagious. However, people without blisters can also transmit the infection.

Since herpes is a viral infection, it cannot be cured. However, there are available treatments to help manage the condition. 

Symptoms of herpes

Both oral and genital herpes is usually asymptomatic. However, they can cause painful ulcers or blisters at the site of infection. 

Symptoms of herpes include:

  • Painful blisters in the vagina, penis and anus
  • Sores on the lips (also called cold sores)
  • Itching, tingling or burning sensation in the mouth before the appearance of sores
  • Scabs
  • Pain when urine touches the sores
  • Fever and chills
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is one of the most commonly reported STDs in the world. It is usually transmitted via anal and vaginal sex. But, it can spread via oral sex as well. 

Chlamydia is a bacterial infection caused by the bacteria, Chlamydia trachomatis. It can affect both men and women. It can damage a woman’s reproductive system, thus making it difficult for the woman to get pregnant again. 

Most people with chlamydia do not show symptoms, especially during the early stage. However, it can cause symptoms and health problems later.

Chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics. To ensure the infection is gone, you will need to get retested one to three months after your treatment.

Symptoms of chlamydia

About 40-96 per cent of people with chlamydia show no symptoms. However, some people may experience symptoms of chlamydia such as:

  • Pain or burning sensation when urinating
  • Odd discharge from the penis or vagina
  • Pain in the testicles
  • Pain in the lower abdomen

Sexually transmitted diseases can be prevented by abstaining from sex. However, if you are sexually active and unsure of your partner, you can reduce your risk of contracting by using barrier protection like condoms.

If you have concerns that you might have contracted an STD, you should book an appointment with a doctor for a proper test, diagnosis and treatment (if necessary).