5 STDs you can have without knowing it

Good things to know…

Here’s the problem with all those scary stories and photos you might remember from Sex Ed class: They’re misleading. It’s very possible to have STDs with no symptoms, so telling teens that they’ll be able to tell when they’re exposed to something is both unrealistic and irresponsible.

The idea that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are these gross, life-altering conditions is also deeply stigmatizing, not to mention largely inaccurate. In reality, many STDs can be cured with a round of antibiotics, while others can be managed with medication. And you may never even know you have an STD, either because the symptoms are so subtle or because there are no symptoms at all.

Because of all this, many organizations actually prefer to use the term sexually transmitted infections (STIs) rather than STDs, since a disease is defined as a condition that impairs normal functioning and typically comes with symptoms or signs—which isn’t often the case with these infections. While the terms STD and STI are still typically used interchangeably, it’s worth noting that many of these ailments are, in fact, infections that come with no symptoms at all and can be cured with antibiotics. However, for consistency’s sake, we’ll continue to use the term STD throughout this article.

If you’re sexually active, getting an STD is a real possibility. The CDC estimates that 20 million new STD infections occur each year in the U.S. That’s why it’s so important to get tested regularly, and to be honest with any new partners (and your gyno) about your sexual activity. It’s even more important when you consider that condoms can’t protect against all STDs and that STDs with no symptoms exist—some of which can do serious damage if they go untreated.

While some STDs, like HIV and syphilis, can hang around in your body for a bit before symptoms pop up, they’re typically known for being symptomatic. In most cases, an infected person will show the telltale signs of the infection. But there are a few STDs that are actually known for being asymptomatic, which means you could never know you have them until they’ve spread or led to other side effects.

Here are the STDs that don’t have obvious symptoms. Take this as your official reminder to not only practice safe sex, but get tested regularly especially if you have new partners or are thinking of becoming pregnant at any point later in life.

1. Human papillomavirus (HPV)

What it is: HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection, and one of the ones that condoms can’t always protect against. Chances are you’ll have HPV at some point in your life whether or not you realize it. “You could be carrying it and passing it and not have any physical signs,” Michael Cackovic, M.D., an ob/gyn at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. That’s because some strains cause genital warts, but many others don’t.

What you can do: If you’re under 30, HPV won’t be a part of your routine STD screening, because it’s so common and often goes away after some time (there’s no treatment for it anyway). If you’re over 30, routine screening is recommended along with your Pap smear. While it’s very likely you’ll have the virus at some point and nothing bad will ever come from it, some strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer, which is why getting a regular Pap smear is so important. An abnormal Pap smear indicates changes in the cervical cells usually caused by HPV, and depending upon what type of abnormal cells your doctor finds, you may be tested to confirm HPV was the cause.

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