—Reed P.*, University of Windsor, Ontario

(*Name changed)

First, the most common symptom of an STI is no symptom at all. Studies have demonstrated these alarming truths:

  • More than nine out of ten people infected with HPV (human papillomavirus) don’t know they’re infected.
  • Two out of three people who have herpes simplex type 1, and two out of five who have herpes simplex type 2, don’t know it.
  • Eighty-five percent of men and 90 percent of women who are carrying chlamydia don’t show symptoms.

What are the noticeable symptoms of STIs?

Some cases do involve noticeable symptoms. If you have any of the following, be sure to get tested.

If you were born with male genitalia:

  • Burning during urination
  • Discharge from the penis
  • A sore, growth, or rash anywhere on the genitals
  • Soreness in your scrotum
  • Symptoms of a urinary tract infection (e.g., persistent urge to urinate, burning or tingling after urination, cloudy urine, blood in urine, low fever)

If you were born with female genitalia:

  • Unusual discharge from your vagina
  • A sore, growth, rash, or irritation on the genitals
  • Pelvic pain

Many other symptoms may be linked to an STI, but can also be related to other common conditions (e.g., a sore throat can indicate gonorrhea, but more frequently is a symptom of mono, strep, or a simple virus).

How do you get an STI?

The short answer: If you have had unprotected sexual contact, you could potentially have an STI. Unprotected sexual contact is any contact between your genitals and another person.

Some people think that if they have used condoms for penis-in-vagina contact or penis-in-anus sexual contact, they should be OK, but that isn’t necessarily the case. There is more to sex than vaginal or anal penetration. Do you always use condoms or oral dams for oral sex? Gonorrhea, chlamydia, HPV, herpes simplex, and a few others are present in the mouth and can be transmitted during oral sex. In addition, several infections can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact; e.g. HPV, herpes simplex, and syphilis at certain stages of the disease.

If you have had sexual contact (broadly defined), it’s smart to get tested, so you can get treated as necessary and not unwittingly expose others to infection. Speak to a health professional about any symptoms or signs you’re concerned about.