Your sexual health is important to your overall health and well-being, and that includes knowing about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Maybe you’ve noticed a burning sensation when going to the bathroom, or maybe something just feels off. It could be nothing, but it could also be an STD, so it’s important to get tested.

STIs and STDs are nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. They’re very common, with more than 2.5 million cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis reported in 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most STIs are easy to diagnose and treat. But sometimes they don’t cause any recognizable symptoms, so you may not realize you have one to treat. And without treatment, they can potentially lead to more serious health problems.

Below, we’ll go over common STIs and STDs, and how they’re spread. We’ll also cover some STD symptoms, how to get tested and your treatment options if you have one.

Sexually transmitted infections vs. sexually transmitted diseases

STD is likely the term you’ve heard when people speak broadly about sexually transmitted infections, but it’s not exactly accurate for some of them. An infection is only considered a disease when there are symptoms, and many STIs don’t cause you to experience any.

In some cases, an STI can be the first stage of an STD. If you’re tested (even when you don’t have symptoms) and the STI is detected and treated right away, the STI likely won’t turn into an STD. But if you start to have symptoms, the STI may be considered an STD.

Understanding how STIs and STDs are spread

Regardless of your gender identity, sexual orientation or relationship status, you can get an STI or STD. There are several ways they can be spread. Most commonly, STIs and STDs are spread through vaginal, oral, anal or digital sexual contact.

STIs can potentially be spread from pregnant women to their babies during pregnancy, delivery or while breastfeeding. They can also be spread through blood, for instance during blood transfusions or if sharing needles.

Common STD symptoms

Like with any infection or disease, STD symptoms vary. Depending on the STD you have, symptoms might appear within a few days after exposure, or you may not experience any symptoms for weeks, months or years. And there’s a possibility you may not experience any symptoms at all.

STD symptoms in women

STD symptoms in women can easily be mistaken for something else, like a yeast infection, so it’s helpful to be aware of symptoms. Symptoms can include:

  • Pain or a burning sensation when urinating or during a bowel movement
  • Changes in the smell or amount of vaginal discharge
  • Unusual vaginal bleeding
  • Burning, tingling or itching around or in the genitals
  • Pelvic pain
  • Sores, rashes, blisters or bumps around the vaginal or anal areas
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Pain during vaginal or anal penetration
  • Swollen and painful lymph nodes, especially in the neck and groin
  • Frequent urination

STD symptoms in men

Statistically, while women are more likely to get an STD than men, men can still get them if they have multiple partners or don’t use protection. Symptoms may include:

  • Discharge from the penis
  • Itching or burning in the penis
  • Burning sensation or pain when urinating, or during a bowel movement
  • Sores, blisters, rashes or bumps on genitals or mouth
  • Pelvic pain
  • Testicle pain (though this is less common)

The 9 most common STIs in men and women, and how they’re treated

The good news is that many STIs and STDs can be cured, and even those that don’t have a cure can be successfully managed or minimized with proper treatment. There are many different kinds of STIs and STDs, but these are the nine most common.

1. Chlamydia

Chlamydia is an infection caused by a type of bacteria called Chlamydia trachomatis, and often has few to no symptoms, especially in women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this is the most commonly reported STI in the U.S., especially in females ages 15-24. But since there are usually no symptoms, it’s difficult to know exactly how many cases there are each year.

Chlamydia can be cured with antibiotics. Following a doctor’s advice and taking antibiotics correctly is the best way to effectively treat chlamydia.

2. Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is an infection caused by a type of bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae, and it is the second most commonly reported STI in the U.S. – especially in people ages 15-24 years old. Since most gonorrhea infections don’t have symptoms, the CDC estimates the number of reported cases is a fraction of the true amount.

Gonorrhea can be cured with antibiotics, but drug-resistant strains are increasing, according to the CDC. When treating gonorrhea, it’s important to regularly take your antibiotics and if symptoms continue after receiving treatment, make an appointment to see a doctor.

3. Hepatitis

Hepatitis is an infection that causes inflammation of the liver. It can be an acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) illness. The most common types of hepatitis are hepatitis A, hepatitis B and hepatitis C, which are all viral.

Hepatitis A is usually spread through contact with food or water that is contaminated with an infected person’s stool, or through undercooked pork, deer and shellfish.

Hepatitis B and C can be spread by contact with an infected person’s blood, and hepatitis B can also be spread by contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids.

There are vaccines for hepatitis A and B, but there isn’t currently one for hepatitis C. There is no cure for acute hepatitis, but for many people, especially those with A and B, the virus goes away on its own.

Hepatitis C can go away on its own, though it’s the type most likely to become chronic. However, there are certain medications and precautions that help effectively manage Hepatitis C.

4. Herpes simplex virus (HSV)

HSV is categorized into two specific types of viruses: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 is typically referred to as cold sores or oral herpes, and it’s spread through oral-to-oral contact. It can also cause genital herpes through oral-to-genital contact. HSV-2 is usually sexually transmitted, but it can cause infections in both the genitals and mouth.

Since HSV is a lifelong condition, repeated outbreaks may occur, especially if you’re diagnosed with HSV-2 – though outbreaks will likely become shorter and less severe over time. There’s no cure, but your doctor can help you effectively manage outbreaks by prescribing antiviral medicine that may shorten or lessen them.

5. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)

HIV is a virus that affects the body’s immune system. Some people have no symptoms, but many people experience symptoms within a few weeks of infection.

There is currently no cure, so HIV is considered a lifelong condition. And if left untreated, HIV can lead to acquired immunodeficieny syndrome (AIDS). However, people who get effective HIV treatment can live long, healthy lives.

6. Human papilloma virus (HPV)

HPV is the most common STI diagnosed in the United States, and there are many different types of HPV. In most cases, HPV will go away on its own within two years, but if it doesn’t go away, it can cause health problems like cancer or genital warts.

There is a safe and effective vaccine to guard against HPV that works for both females and males. The CDC recommends that all preteens, teens and adults as old as 26 get the vaccine if they haven’t already. It’s not recommended in adults over 26, but speak to your doctor to decide what’s right for you.

7. Syphilis

Syphilis is an infection caused by a type of bacteria called Treponema pallidum, and can cause serious health problems if left untreated. Per the CDC, reports of syphilis infection have climbed since reaching historic lows in 2000 and 2001.

Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics. And while antibiotics can’t repair damage that might already be done, they can stop the disease progression and prevent serious health complications in the future.

8. Trichomoniasis (trich)

Trichomoniasis is an infection caused by a parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. Less than half of people who have trich develop symptoms, so many people don’t know they have it. It’s more common for women to have it, and older women are more likely than younger women to be infected.

Trich is treatable with antibiotics prescribed by a doctor, and as long as treatment is completed, the infection should be completely cleared.

9. Pubic lice (crabs)

Pubic lice are parasites that are usually found in the genital area on pubic hair. They can also be found on areas of the body that has coarse body hair, like armpits, legs, beards, mustaches, eyelashes or eyebrows, but this is less common.

Pubic lice can be treated with over-the-counter lice-killing lotion or mousse, but if it feels like over-the-counter treatment wasn’t successful, reach out to a doctor for other treatment options.

How you get tested for STIs and STDs

Getting tested for STIs and STDs is easy. Just make an appointment with a primary care doctor, or your preferred women’s health or men’s health specialist. For some STIs and STDs, you may also use an online clinic like Virtuwell and have a testing kit sent to you.

How often you should be screened or tested for STIs or STDs depends on a range of factors, including your age, sex, sexual history and whether you’re pregnant.

If you think you’ve been exposed to an STI or STD, it’s important to get tested. Keep in mind, however, that there’s an incubation period for all STIs and STDs – if you test too soon, you will most likely test negative for the disease even if you have been infected.

The incubation period is the time it takes from exposure to when you may start experiencing symptoms. Incubation periods for STIs vary from a few days to weeks or even years. Since many STIs are asymptomatic, it’s important to test if you think you’ve been exposed even if you don’t have symptoms. But keep in mind that there are some STDs, like HPV and HSV, where your doctor will only test you if you experience symptoms.

One of the most effective ways to protect yourself from STIs and STDs is to use a barrier protection like a condom every time you have sex. When condoms are used correctly, they’re very effective in protecting against STIs and STDs – but they’re not 100% effective.

Only condoms made from synthetic materials like latex, polyurethane and polyisoprene help protect against STIs. Natural condoms like those made with lambskin do not.

Regular testing, especially when you’re with a new partner, is also a good way to protect yourself. Since many people experience no symptoms with STIs, the only way to know, and to keep you and your partner safe and healthy, is to test. Also, you can get an STI more than once, so regular testing can catch if you’ve been reinfected.

Limiting your number of sexual partners and being in a long-term monogamous relationship with one sexual partner can help you protect yourself, too.

If you think you’ve been exposed to an STI or STD, or if you’re experiencing symptoms, make an appointment with your primary care doctor, women’s health specialist or men’s health specialist.