Are there any silent STDs?

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections passed from one person to another through sexual contact. Many STDs do not show symptoms, meaning they can be “silent.” This allows them to spread undetected. Let’s take a look at some of the most common silent STDs.


Chlamydia is one of the most common STDs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that in 2018, 1.8 million cases of chlamydia were reported in the United States. It is caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis.

In women, chlamydia infections are often asymptomatic. When they do cause symptoms, they may include:

  • Abnormal vaginal discharge
  • Burning sensation when urinating
  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Bleeding between periods

In men, infections may cause:

  • Discharge from the penis
  • Burning when urinating
  • Burning and itching around the opening of the penis

Without treatment, chlamydia can lead to long-term complications:

  • In women, it can spread to the uterus and fallopian tubes, increasing the risk of infertility, ectopic pregnancy, and chronic pelvic pain.
  • In men, it can cause epididymitis, an inflammation of the coiled tube behind each testicle.
  • It can be passed to an infant during vaginal childbirth.

The good news is chlamydia can be cured with antibiotics. The CDC recommends screening all sexually active women under 25 years old yearly. Those at increased risk (new or multiple sex partners) should be screened more frequently.


Gonorrhea is another common bacterial STD. The CDC estimates 820,000 new gonorrheal infections occur each year in the U.S. It is caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae.

Many gonorrheal infections in women do not cause symptoms. When present, symptoms may include:

  • Thick, yellowish vaginal discharge
  • Vaginal itching and soreness
  • Burning sensation when urinating
  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Irregular menstrual bleeding

Men may experience:

  • White, yellow, or green discharge from the penis
  • Painful urination
  • Swollen or painful testicles

Undetected, gonorrhea can cause:

  • Infertility
  • Epididymitis (inflammation of the coiled tube behind the testicles)
  • Increased risk of HIV
  • Spread to joints and heart valves

Like chlamydia, gonorrhea can be treated and cured with the right antibiotics. The CDC recommends annual screening for sexually active women under 25. Those with new or multiple partners should be tested more often.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV is the most common STD. Nearly all sexually active adults will contract at least one strain of HPV in their lifetime. There are over 100 strains of HPV. Some cause warts on the genitals, hands, or feet. Others cause no symptoms and go away on their own. However, some “high risk” strains can lead to certain cancers:

  • Cervical cancer
  • Vaginal and vulvar cancer
  • Anal cancer
  • Penile cancer
  • Throat cancer

There is no treatment for the virus itself, but its effects can be managed. The HPV vaccine protects against the strains most likely to cause cancer. Pap smears detect abnormal cervical cell changes, allowing treatment before cancer develops. HPV-associated cancers are almost 100% preventable with vaccination, screening, and early treatment.


Herpes simplex virus (HSV) has two main strains. HSV-1 primarily causes oral herpes, responsible for cold sores and fever blisters on the mouth and lips. HSV-2 mainly causes genital herpes outbreaks around the genitals and anus, though HSV-1 can also cause genital herpes through oral-to-genital contact.

Many people with HSV show no symptoms at all and do not know they are infected. When symptoms do appear, they may include:

  • Tingling, itching, burning, or pain around the mouth or genitals
  • Small, painful blisters filled with fluid around the lips or genitals/anus
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Swollen lymph nodes

There is no cure for herpes. However, medications can reduce the frequency and severity of outbreaks. Condoms can lower (but not eliminate) the risk of transmission. If a partner already has oral herpes, they can transmit it through kissing or oral sex, even without an active cold sore.


HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) damages the body’s immune system if left untreated. Over time, this weakens the body’s ability to fight infections. The final stage is AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

The early stages of HIV often produce no symptoms. Some people may experience a flu-like illness 2-4 weeks after infection. Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Rash

Without treatment, HIV can take 10-15 years to progress to AIDS. Symptoms of AIDS may include:

  • Rapid weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent fevers and sweats
  • Persistent or unusual infections
  • Cough and shortness of breath
  • Sores in the mouth or genitals

There is no cure for HIV, but medications called antiretrovirals can control the virus, letting people with HIV live long healthy lives. HIV transmission can be prevented by using condoms, only having sex with partners confirmed HIV-negative, and taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication.


Syphilis is caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. If untreated, it progresses through four stages:

  1. Primary syphilis: A painless sore appears at the infection site 3-90 days after contact. It will heal on its own, but infection remains.
  2. Secondary syphilis: Rash, fever, fatigue, patchy hair loss, headache, weight loss, muscle aches. Also resolves on its own.
  3. Latent syphilis: No symptoms, but infection remains in the body.
  4. Late syphilis: Damage to internal organs like the heart, brain, eyes, nerves, liver, bones. This can be disabling or fatal.

Syphilis is simple to cure in the early stages with penicillin injections. Without treatment, it can severely impact the brain, heart, and other organs. Mothers can also transmit it to a fetus during pregnancy.


Trichomoniasis is a common STD caused by the protozoan parasite Trichomonas vaginalis. It infects both women and men, but symptoms are more common in women.

Up to 70% of trichomoniasis cases in women are asymptomatic. When present, symptoms may include:

  • Green, grey, or yellow vaginal discharge (often frothy with a strong odor)
  • Genital itching
  • Painful urination
  • Redness and soreness of the genitals

Symptoms in infected men are rare, but may include:

  • Discharge from the penis
  • Burning after urination or ejaculation

Without treatment, the infection can persist for months or years. It can increase the risk of contracting other STDs and passing it on during childbirth. Antibiotics can typically cure trichomoniasis.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a viral infection transmitted through contact with blood or other body fluids, including semen and vaginal fluids. Many cases cause no acute illness, so infected people are unaware they have it.

When symptoms of acute hepatitis B occur, they may include:

  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Joint pain
  • Jaundice (yellowing skin and eyes)

In some people, hepatitis B progresses to a chronic, lifelong infection. This can lead to serious health issues like cirrhosis, liver failure, and liver cancer. Fortunately, vaccines provide effective protection against hepatitis B. High risk individuals should be immunized.

Mycoplasma genitalium

Mycoplasma genitalium (MG) is a bacterium that can infect the urinary and genital tracts. Many cases in both men and women cause no symptoms. When present, symptoms may include:

  • Pain or burning during urination
  • Abnormal genital discharge
  • Genital irritation or inflammation
  • Abdominal pain or discomfort during intercourse

MG can damage reproductive organs, leading to PID, cervicitis, and urethritis if untreated. The infection is emerging as resistant to common antibiotics. But newer antibiotics can still cure MG. Testing and treating high risk individuals helps prevent spread and complications.


Many common STDs do not produce obvious symptoms, especially in the early stages. This allows them to be passed to sexual partners without detection. Some can cause serious long-term health problems if left untreated.

Routine testing and screening is important for sexually active individuals to identify silent STDs before complications occur. Condoms can also help reduce transmission risk. If detected early, most common STDs can be cured with antibiotics or managed with antiviral medication and monitoring.

Knowing your own sexual health status and that of your partner is crucial. Many STDs will not show up on a standard STI screening panel unless specifically tested for. So speak with your doctor about getting a full screening based on your individual risk factors and symptoms.

Some key ways to protect yourself from silent STDs include:

  • Get screened regularly if sexually active
  • Use condoms correctly every time you have sex
  • Ask partners to get tested before unprotected sex
  • Get vaccinated against hepatitis B and HPV
  • Take precautions with new or multiple partners
  • Avoid contact with lesions during outbreaks
  • Never douche or use vaginal deodorant products

While many STDs may not have obvious symptoms, they can still be transmitted and cause harm. Stay proactive about your sexual health to prevent silent STDs from slipping through the cracks.

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