Three Common STDs You May Not Know You Have

The sneaky thing about many sexually transmitted diseases is how often they hide in plain sight. STDs are often asymptomatic. For many of the most common STDs, people may not know they have them for years.

That's not the message that most people get about STDs. The stigma associated with them says they're horrible. It's true, they can have serious long-term outcomes, like infertility or cancer. They can be very painful or uncomfortable. They can cause problems in relationships. They can also be invisible for years.

I spend a lot of time talking about the importance of regular screening. The hidden nature of the STD epidemic is why that's important. Without testing, many STDs remain invisible and therefore undetected. The only way to prevent their long term effects, and transmission, is to seek them out.

Let me tell you about three common STDs that you may not know you have...

1
Herpes

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Herpes Virus, artwork. David Mack/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

More than half the population is infected with herpes. A large number of them have no idea. Many people never notice or recognize herpes symptoms. Others recognize symptoms, like cold sores, but don't know that they're caused by herpes.

Why does it matter if you have herpes if you don't know it? The stigma associated with herpes is powerful, but that's not the reason you should care. Herpes may not cause problems for you, but it might cause problems for a partner. Oral to genital herpes transmission is a growing concern. It can lead to significant discomfort. It also has the potential to cause serious problems for infant health, if a woman becomes infected in pregnancy.

Fortunately, if you do know you have herpes, there are ways to reduce transmission risk. Suppressive therapy can be a big help. So can using barriers for oral and other types of sex. Herpes is spread by skin-to-skin contact, so this isn't perfect prevention. But safe sex has been shown to reduce risk.

Learn more about blood tests for herpes...

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2
HPV

Papillomavirus
Papillomavirus. Science Picture Co/Collection Mix: Subjects/Getty Images

HPV is even more common than herpes. According to the CDC, almost every sexually active person will be infected with HPV at some point during their life. For most of them, this won't cause any problems. The vast majority of people with HPV clear it within a couple of years.

However, HPV can lead to more serious disease. Low risk types of the virus can lead to genital warts. While not painful, these can be very unpleasant to deal with. Of greater concern is the high risk viruses. These are associated with a number of different types of cancer.

Fortunately, there is a way to reduce HPV risk -- at least for young people. HPV vaccination has been shown to reduce infection with the most common high- and low-risk forms of the virus. The only trick is getting the HPV vaccine early. It works best if people get it before they start to become sexually active. 

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3
Chlamydia

Chlamydia
Chlamydia. Science Picture Co./Collection Mix:Subjects/Getty Images

Chlamydia is one of the most common bacterial STDs. Unfortunately, most people with chlamydia have no idea they have it. In the early stages, chlamydia often has no symptoms. However, it can cause long term problems. For example, untreated chlamydia is associated with pelvic inflammatory disease. It can also lead to infertility.

Chlamydia infection can be a problem during pregnancy. That's one reason why it's recommended that young women get tested every year. However, it's a good idea for men to be tested as well.

Fortunately, chlamydia is entirely preventable by consistently and properly practicing safe sex.

Did you know that chlamydia infections of the eye are a major cause of preventable blindness?

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Risk Depends on Who You Are

These are not the only STDs that commonly show up without symptoms. HIV also often goes unrecognized for long periods of time. So does gonorrhea. Even syphilis can be a hidden disease if the initial sores are present someplace hidden -- like the mouth.

The trick is that everyone has different risks. Certain STDs are more common in some populations than others. However, everyone has some level of risk for STDs. That's why everyone who is sexually active should get screened. Far too often, people have no idea that they're infected with an STD. That puts not only their health at risk, but the health of their partners and communities.

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