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Everyone Should Know About Asymptomatic STDs

There's A Reason STDs Are Called The Hidden Epidemic

By

Updated July 19, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

One of the factors that makes STDs so common is that most people with an STD don't even know that they are sick. It is not uncommon for someone to be infected but have no STD symptoms - in other words for them be asymptomatic. Therefore, people can be infected with an STD for many years without knowing it. During that time, if they're not careful, they can pass their disease on to some or all of their sex partners. That's why some scientists call STDs "the hidden epidemic." They're common, they're invisible, and they can have serious long term health consequences including infertility and even (rarely) death.

1. There Is a High Risk of Infection

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Although STDs aren't transmitted every time people have sex, they can get around pretty quickly. If one infected person has unprotected sex with a new partner each year, and each of their partners has unprotected sex with one new partner a year, in 10 years the first person could have passed their STD on to over 1000 people. If each person has sex with two new partners a year, that number goes up to more than fifty-nine thousand.

2. You May Have No Recognizable Symptoms

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Chlamydia is the most common treatable STD, but three-quarters of all women, and half of all men, with chlamydia have no STD symptoms. Half of all women with gonorrhea, and 10% of men, don't show symptoms either. Many other STDs can also lie dormant for months or years. No wonder that the Centers for Disease Control estimate that there are more than 19 million new STD infections in the U.S. each year. It's very easy to have an STD and not know about it. That's why safer sex should be the rule rather than the exception.

3. There May Be Long Term Damage

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Although an STD may not be making you feel sick right now, it doesn’t mean that it is not having an effect on your, or your sexual partner’s, health. Left untreated, some STDs can cause long-term damage to your reproductive tract, such as pelvic inflammatory disase, and make it difficult or impossible to have children. Over time, others can lead to whole body illness, organ damage, or even death.

4. Screening Is Essential

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The only way to tell if you or your sexual partner has an STD is to be tested. Before starting a new sexual relationship both you and your partner should be tested for the most common STDs. If you aren’t comfortable having your regular doctor examine you, testing can also be done at a family planning or STD clinic. Many clinics even have free, or highly subsidized, tests for people with limited incomes. But remember, even if your tests come back negative, the best way to keep them that way is to consistently practice safer sex.

5. Feeling Good Doesn't Mean You're Safe

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Just because you don’t have symptoms doesn’t mean you can’t give your partner an STD. Some people who know they are infected with an incurable STD think that they can’t spread the disease when they don’t have symptoms. However, this isn’t true. Herpes, for example, is transmissible even when a person isn’t having an outbreak. So are HPV, the virus that causes genital warts and cervical cancer, and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Since these diseases can’t be cured it is extremely important for people who have them to take precautions with all their sexual partners.

6. Incurable Is Not The Same as Untreatable

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Even if you have an incurable STD, there are still precautions you can take to improve your health and protect your partners. One such precaution is suppressive therapy. For example, people with Herpes should consider taking a drug such as Valtrex. This form of treatment not only reduces the likelihood of an outbreak, it also lowers the probability of infecting your partner. However, since it does not remove the risk of transmission completely, it is important to always use safer sex practices. Remember, though, that condoms are not 100% effective at preventing herpes or HPV, since these viruses spread skin to skin.

7. Your Health is Your Responsibility

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So take charge of your own sexual health. Safer sex practices, and other precautions, can help keep you free of sexually transmitted diseases. Since you can’t rely on how you feel to tell you if you’re well, it’s your responsibility to get tested and treated if you could possibly be at risk. Not just your health, but also the health of those you love, is in your hands.

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