Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections passed from one person to another through sexual contact. There are many different STDs, and some cause immediate symptoms while others may not show symptoms for months or years. This article will focus on common STDs that can cause symptoms right away in the first few days or weeks after exposure. Getting tested and treated quickly is important to prevent complications and avoid passing the infection to partners.
STDs That Can Cause Immediate Symptoms
Chlamydia is one of the most common STDs. It is caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis and can infect both men and women. According to the CDC, about 1.7 million cases of chlamydia were reported in the United States in 2017.
Many people with chlamydia do not experience any symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they often appear between 1 to 3 weeks after exposure. One of the first signs can be abnormal discharge from the penis or vagina. Men may notice a white, cloudy or watery discharge from the penis while women may have an abnormal vaginal discharge that may be thin and watery or thick and yellow/green.
Other possible immediate symptoms include:
- Burning or pain when urinating
- Urinating more frequently
- Pain or tenderness in the testicles (men)
- Bleeding between periods (women)
Without treatment, chlamydia can lead to long-term health problems in both sexes including pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and ectopic pregnancy in women.
Gonorrhea is a very common bacterial STD caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae. The CDC estimates about 820,000 new gonorrheal infections occur each year in the United States.
Many people with gonorrhea are asymptomatic. When present, symptoms of gonorrhea usually begin 2 to 14 days after infection. Early signs include:
- Thick, cloudy or bloody discharge from the penis or vagina
- Pain or burning sensation when urinating
- Swollen or painful testicles (men)
Some women may experience increased vaginal discharge, bleeding between periods, and abdominal or pelvic pain.
Like chlamydia, untreated gonorrhea can lead to serious complications such as pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and chronic pelvic pain. It also increases the risk of contracting and transmitting HIV.
Trichomoniasis is caused by infection with a microscopic parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. It is one of the most common curable STDs with an estimated 3.7 million cases in the United States.
Up to 70% of people with trichomoniasis do not have symptoms. When symptoms do occur, they usually show up between 5 to 28 days after exposure. Symptoms can include:
- Green, yellow or gray discharge from the penis or vagina
- Discharge with a fishy odor
- Itching, redness or soreness of the genitals
- Discomfort or pain during sexual intercourse and urination
- Lower abdominal pain (women)
Trichomoniasis increases susceptibility to HIV infection. In women, it can cause vaginitis and inflammation of reproductive organs.
Genital herpes is a viral infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types that can cause genital herpes – HSV type 1 and type 2. According to the WHO, about 536 million people worldwide aged 15-49 years have genital HSV-1 or HSV-2 infection.
Many people infected with HSV do not have symptoms, but when present, symptoms usually start 2 to 12 days after exposure. Initial symptoms can include:
- Tingling, burning or itching around the mouth or genital area
- Painful blisters or sores around the mouth, penis, vagina, cervix, anus, thighs or butt
- Small red bumps that develop into blisters or sores
- Cracked, raw skin around the mouth or genitals
- Flu-like symptoms like fever, muscle aches, and swollen lymph nodes
The first outbreak is usually the most painful. Even after the initial infection, HSV stays in the body and can still be transmitted to partners.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection caused by the spirochete Treponema pallidum. An estimated 1.5 million cases occur globally every year.
In the initial stage (primary syphilis), symptoms begin 10-90 days after infection. The first sign can be a single painless sore at the site of infection such as on the penis, vagina, anus or mouth. The sore is called a chancre. It may be accompanied by swelling of lymph nodes near the sore. The chancre typically heals in 3 to 6 weeks.
Secondary syphilis develops around 2 to 8 weeks after the chancre appears. Symptoms include:
- Rash on the palms, soles of the feet, or other parts of the body
- Mouth or genital lesions
- Wart-like lesions around the genitals or mouth
- Hair loss in patches around the body
- Fever, sore throat, headaches, weight loss, fatigue, and muscle pains
Without treatment, syphilis can severely impact the heart, brain, and other organs leading to blindness, neurological problems, dementia and death.
Other STDs That May Cause Early Symptoms
Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
HPV is one of the most common STDs transmitted through intimate skin-to-skin contact. There are over 150 strains of HPV. Around 40 types can infect the mouth, throat or genital areas. According to the CDC, about 42.5% of Americans between 18-59 years old currently have a genital HPV infection.
Most people with HPV have no symptoms, but some may develop visible growths or warts in the mouth or genital region within weeks or months after infection. Genital warts appear as small bulging bumps or flat lesions on the vulva, vagina, cervix, penis, scrotum, thighs and anus. Oral warts can develop on or under the tongue and on the soft palate.
Other symptoms like itching and burning may accompany the warts. HPV infections can lead to certain types of cancer in the future.
Pubic lice, also called crabs, are tiny insects that infest the pubic hair and survive by feeding on blood. They are usually spread by close intimate or sexual contact. Pubic lice cause intense itching in the genital area. The itching usually starts about 5 days after exposure.
Other symptoms include:
- Visible nits (lice eggs) on pubic hair
- Bluish spots on the skin caused by lice bites
- Excessive scratching in the pubic region
Pubic lice can be treated with topical medications and do not lead to serious outcomes like other STDs.
Scabies is an itchy skin condition caused by infestation with the human itch mite Sarcoptes scabiei. It can spread through prolonged skin-to-skin contact during sexual or intimate activity. Symptoms typically appear 2 to 6 weeks after exposure in people without prior infestation. In those previously exposed, symptoms may show up within 1 to 4 days.
Initial symptoms include:
- Severe itching, especially at night
- Thin, irregular burrow tracks made by the mites
- Rash that may affect the entire body or be limited to common sites like the wrists, folds between fingers, elbows, armpits, breasts, penis and buttocks.
Scabies does not directly cause long-term complications but persistent scratching can increase the risk of secondary bacterial infections. It is easily treated with medications.
Getting Tested and Treated
If you are sexually active, it is important to watch for any unusual symptoms like discharge, sores or rashes around the genital area or mouth. Seek medical attention promptly if you suspect you may have contracted an STD. Getting tested and treated quickly can greatly reduce your risk of complications.
Many STDs can be detected through a physical exam, blood tests or swabs/samples from infected areas. Based on your test results, your doctor will prescribe appropriate antibiotic medications, antiviral medications or topical creams to treat the STD. Make sure your partner also gets tested and treated to prevent reinfection.
Practice safe sex by using condoms and dental dams for sexual contact. Limit sexual partners and avoid contact with infected areas of the body. If you are at high risk for HIV, ask your doctor about PrEP medication to prevent getting infected. Getting vaccinated for hepatitis B and HPV also reduces your risk of contracting these viral infections.
With early testing and treatment, most STDs can be cured completely. Even infections like herpes or HIV that cannot be cured can be controlled with medications to prevent transmission and health issues.
Several common sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, syphilis and genital herpes can cause symptoms within days or weeks after infection. Typical early symptoms include unusual discharge or sores in the mouth or genital region, itching and burning sensations, pain while urinating and swollen lymph nodes.
Other STDs like HPV may cause genital warts to appear within weeks or months after transmission. Scabies and pubic lice also produce itching and skin irritation within days or weeks of infestation.
Getting tested promptly when you notice initial symptoms allows early treatment before complications develop. Practice safe sex, limit partners and get vaccinated to reduce your risk of acquiring STDs that can impact your long-term health.