This is particularly true for those STDs that are spread by skin-to-skin contact rather than through bodily fluids. Condoms and other barriers can reduce the risk of these diseases, but they can't eliminate them completely. That's why so many people want to know what it feels like to have an STD. They want to be certain that they could tell if they had one.
Unfortunately, that sort of certainty requires a trip to the doctor.
I get two or three e-mails every week asking me "What does it feel like to have an STD?" Most often, this question is followed by a description of potential STD symptoms that the person is experiencing. The writer might talk about the fact that it burns when they pee or that they noticed a strange smell or unusual discharge.
Discharge and pain on urination are certainly possible STD symptoms, and indicate that it's worth finding a place to get tested, but the question of what it feels like to have an STD isn't simple. It's not just pain and discharge, sores and strange smells. There are a wide variety of STDs out there, and each of them has its own symptoms.
Some common symptoms of STDs include:
- Discharge from the penis, vagina or anus - which can be caused by chlamydia(CT), gonorrhea(GC) trichomoniasis(trich), non-gonoccocal urethritis(NGU), bacterial vaginosis(BV)*, or lymphogranuloma venereum(LGV).
- Anal or genital itching - which can be caused by CT, trich, BV, pubic lice, scabies, herpes (HSV), LGV, Molloscum contagiosum, and mycoplasma.
- Painful sex - which can be caused by CT, trich, HSV, chancroid, and mycoplasma.
- Pain during urination - which can be caused by CT, GC, trich, HSV, NGU, BV, mycoplasma, and chancroid.
- Unusual bumps or sores - which can be caused by syphilis, chancroid, HSV, LGV, genital warts, and molloscum.
- Pain with bowel movement - which can be caused by rectal infections with chlamydia, gonorrhea, LGV, and potentially other sexually transmitted pathogens
- Changes in odor - which can be caused by trich and BV.
However, even that broad list of symptoms isn't complete. Other STD symptoms can include sore throats, body aches, and even eye problems. Furthermore, a list of symptoms doesn't really answer the question of what an STD feels like, since quite often having an STD feels like nothing at all. People can be infected with an STD and have no symptoms for years, while that STD is still causing long term health problems or being spread to one or more of their partners. Relying on anything other than regular screening to determine whether or not you have an STD is simply unreliable.
In addition, not all things that first seem like STD symptoms - pain, strange lumps, discharge - will end up being caused by an STD. Other diseases, such as yeast infections, which are not sexually transmitted can also cause these signs, and most STD symptoms are non-specific enough that even doctors can't diagnose them without the help of a lab. That's why if you do experience genital pain, recurring sores, discharge, or other symptoms, it's always a good idea to get them checked out. Whether a disease is sexually transmitted or not has nothing to do with how important it is for you to take care of it.
Finally, I want to mention that most people who ask what an STD feels like usually are asking because they know they are at risk - often because they have had unprotected sex with one or more partners whose STD status they are uncertain of. That, on its own, is a good reason to get tested, since there is no other effective way for you to stay on top of your sexual health. It's not even terribly painful or difficult. These days, most of the common STDs can be tested for by blood draw or peeing in a cup