Ask the Expert: What are the Symptoms of Sexually Transmitted Diseases?

Symptoms vary but may include painful urination, lower abdominal pain or pain during sex.

sexually transmitted diseases

Last October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its annual Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report, which ranked the city of Detroit at No. 29 of the top 100 cities for sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs.

When it comes to STDs, also known as sexually transmitted infections or STIs, awareness is key, and in honor of STD Awareness Month in April, a local physician weighs in on the symptoms and impact of STDs.

“STDs can cause devastating effects to a woman’s health and well-being,” says Ebonie Harris, M.D., an obstetrician-gynecologist with Ascension Medical Group. “STDs have been linked to chronic pelvic pain, infertility, ectopic pregnancies, infections in unborn babies, cancer and even death.” 

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According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, adolescents of all races, particularly girls, are disproportionately affected by STIs. One in four young women in the United States ages 14-19 years old is infected with Neisseria gonorrhoeae, Chlamydia trachomatis, Trichomonas vaginalis, herpes simplex virus (HSV) type 2 and/or human papillomavirus (HPV). However, according to the same study, among same-age African American females, nearly one in two (48%) had an STI. 

Some STIs, such as chlamydia, disproportionately affect African American women. The CDC reports that the rate of chlamydia in Black women was 5.7 times higher than the rate among white women.

“I always counsel my young patients about the reality of how common STDs are in women in their age group, and that the complications associated with STDs disproportionately affect women greater than men,” Dr. Harris says. “I also emphasize that there are common STDs like genital warts and HSV that we do not have a cure for and are not completely prevented with condoms used as a barrier, but evidence has shown consistent condom use may reduce risks of infection. So, the decision to become sexually active should not be taken lightly, and only abstinence from sexual activity is 100% effective.”

Some STDs may have no symptoms initially, or the early symptoms may be mistaken for another illness. The CDC website urges, “If you are sexually active, getting tested for STDs is one of the most important things you can do to protect your health. Make sure you have an open and honest conversation about your sexual history and STD testing with your doctor.” 

Symptoms of STDs will vary with the type of infection. However, these symptoms warrant further investigation by your health provider: 

• Painful urination

• Lower abdominal pain

• Vaginal discharge in women

• Discharge from the penis in men

• Pain during sex

• Bleeding between periods in women

• Testicular pain in men

It’s important to note that some STIs are becoming resistant to currently available treatment. 

“I have had patients with Trichomonas whose infections were not completely treated with single-dose antibiotics,” Dr. Harris says. “They in turn had to be placed on a full seven-day treatment. Due to the potential complications of STDs, I always retest four weeks after treatment to make sure the infection is cleared,” she adds.

Dr. Harris concludes, “I feel that easy access to medical care and treatment as well as education is key. Many patients come in for prevention of pregnancy. However, I always emphasize the need to protect yourself against STDs and have regular health screenings.”

Get more health information and find a doctor near you by visiting ascension.org/michigan or calling 866-501-DOCS (3627).

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