Our comprehensive guide to STDs

What is a STD?

A sexually transmitted disease, or STD for short, is a disease that’s generally spread via sexual intercourse. They are among the most common contagious diseases all over the world and can have severe long-term consequences if they’re not treated properly.

Who is most at risk of catching a STD?

It’s important to be aware that everyone can get STDs if they are having unprotected sex – regardless of sexual orientation or personal hygiene. However, there are certain factors that will put you at higher risk:

  • You have multiple sexual partners
  • You have sex with someone that has multiple sexual partners
  • You have unprotected sex (keep in mind that hormonal contraception doesn’t protect you against catching an STD)
  • You share needles with other people when injecting drugs

What causes STDs?

STDs can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites and the germs that cause the infection to spread hides in your semen, blood, vaginal fluids, and sometimes also in your saliva. STDs are generally spread by vaginal, anal, or oral sex but some of them can also be spread via skin-to-skin contact.

banana with condom

Most common types of STDs


Chlamydia is a very common STD that’s caused by bacteria called Chlamydia trachomatis. It spreads through sexual contact like anal, vaginal, or oral sex and can be passed on to a baby during childbirth. For a newborn it can cause eye infections, blindness, and pneumonia. In most cases, chlamydia doesn’t cause any symptoms at all. However, if you happen to experience symptoms, they will likely appear anywhere between 7-21 days after the initial exposure. Here are some of the most common symptoms of chlamydia:

  • Burning sensation when peeing
  • Pain or discomfort during sex
  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Green or yellow discharge from vagina or penis

Chlamydia can also affect the rectum if it’s caused by anal sex. If that’s the case it can lead to rectal pain, bleeding, and discharge.

Thankfully, chlamydia is easily treatable with antibiotics and can be cured completely if treatment is started early. However, if chlamydia isn’t treated properly, it can lead to more severe side effects:

  • Infections of the urethra, prostate gland, and testicles
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Infertility


Gonorrhoea, also known as “the clap”, is a very common STD that’s caused by bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It’s super contagious and can spread easily via anal, vaginal, or oral sex. If you touch an area of infected skin and then touch your eye, it can cause pink eye. It’s important to be aware that you don’t have to develop symptoms in order to pass it on to other people. As soon as you’ve come into contact with the bacteria, you’re able to pass it on.

Gonorrhoea thrives in dark, moist, and warm places. That’s why it thrives in areas like your vagina, penis, mouth, rectum, and eye. An infection with gonorrhoea doesn’t usually come with any symptoms, but if it does, they generally appear 2-5 days after exposure in men and after up to 10 days in women. This is not an exact science, though, and you can also develop symptoms as early as one day after infection or as late as two weeks after. Possible symptoms of gonorrhoea are:

  • Pain when peeing
  • Pain or discomfort during sex
  • Having to pee more often than usual
  • White, yellow, beige, or green discharge from the penis or vagina
  • Itching and swelling of the genitals
  • Bleeding between periods
  • Sore throat and swollen lymph nodes if gonorrhoea was passed on via oral sex

Gonorrhoea can also be passed on via anal sex and, if it affects the rectum, it’ll lead to itching around the anus, pain or discomfort when pooping, and rectal discharge.

Once gonorrhoea has been diagnosed, it’s treated easily with a course of antibiotics. If left untreated, however, it can have a severe impact on your life.

  • Infections of the testicles, urethra, and prostate gland
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Inflammation of the epididymis (that’s the tube that stores your sperm)
  • Infertility

Gonorrhoea can spread to the baby during childbirth where it can cause severe health problems for the newborn. That’s why it’s super important that you get tested for STDs when you’re pregnant.


Trichomoniasis, also known as “trich”, is also a common STD that’s caused by a small parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis. Trich is transmitted either via penetrative sex or vulva-to-vulva contact and although it can affect anyone, it’s much more common for women to develop symptoms. If trichomoniasis happens to cause symptoms in men, the infection will most likely occur in the urethra, in women, on the other hand, it’ll likely affect the vagina. The most common symptoms caused by trich are:

  • Unusual discharge from penis or vagina
  • Vaginal discharge often smells “fishy”
  • Pain or discomfort when peeing, ejaculating, or during sex
  • General burning or itching around the genitals
  • Having to pee more often than usual

In women, trichomoniasis can cause vaginitis, can lead to complications during pregnancy and can increase the chance of contracting and transmitting HIV.

Thankfully, your doctor can very easily treat trichomoniasis with a course of antibiotics after it’s been diagnosed. Without proper treatment, trich is likely going to last for months or years and can lead to the following:

  • Urethral infections
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Infertility

Please be aware that both you and your partner(s) will need treatment as the infection might return otherwise.

two hands with condom

Genital herpes

Herpes, the short version of herpes simplex virus (HSV), is one of the most common STDs. There are two known strains of the virus: HSV-1 and HSV-2.

HSV-1 generally affects your mouth and is the strain responsible for nasty cold sores around your mouth and nose. It can be passed on to others or other parts of your body via cold sores or via your saliva. Although it doesn’t usually affect the genitals, if you have a cold sore and practice oral sex, there’s a chance that you pass it on to the other person’s genitalia.

HSV-2 is the herpes viruses that’ known as genital herpes as it affects the genitals, cervix, and your skin. It can theoretically also affect other parts of the body, though. Genital herpes can be transmitted via sexual intercourse and can only be passed on via direct skin-to-skin contact or via saliva. The most common symptom of the virus are little batches of blisters that will be quite sore after developing and will usually take a few weeks to heal.

Whereas the initial outbreak can cause symptoms like fever, body aches, and swollen lymph nodes, your outbreaks will become less frequent and painful over time. Just because you’ve caught herpes doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll develop symptoms, however. You can carry the virus but it can stay dormant in your body. Some people will actually never experience an outbreak, some only have a single one, and others will have multiple outbreaks over the course of their lives.

There’s currently no cure for herpes. That means that once you’ve caught it, it’ll stay in your body for the rest of your life. That doesn’t mean that you’ll have constant herpes blisters, however. For most of the time, the virus will likely stay dormant in your body and there’s medication that can help you manage your symptoms if they’re bad. In severe cases of genital herpes, your doctor might prescribe daily antiviral medication to keep the virus at bay.

Be aware that you can pass it on to your foetus or baby during pregnancy and childbirth; this is called congenital herpes. The virus can be very dangerous for newborns which is why it’s so important that you’re aware of your herpes status when you’re pregnant.

Pubic lice

Pubic lice, also called “crabs”, are small parasites that attach to your pubic hair. Once you’re infected, they can also move to other hairy areas of your body like your armpits, beard, or even your eyebrows. Just like head or body lice, pubic lice feed on human blood which causes small red spots. In the beginning, you’ll likely notice white eggs at the roots of your pubic hair where the lice will hatch from after 6-10 days. The lice itself look like tiny crabs (hence, the name!) and live for about 2-3 weeks. Before they die, usually in the last 2-3 days, female lice will lay eggs and the cycle will go on.

If you have pubic lice, you’ll likely experience some of the following symptoms:

  • Itching around your genitals
  • Small red spots around your genitals
  • High temperature
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability

You can pass the lice on to other people via skin-to-skin contact but also via sharing of clothes, towels, and bedding. To get rid of pubic lice, simply get a 1% permethrin solution or similar at your local pharmacy. These are usually available over the counter and should help treat your problem quickly. If the lice have moved to your eyebrows or eyelashes, you might need to get something prescribed by your GP. Also make sure to clean your clothes, bedding, towels, and home thoroughly to prevent reinfection.


Scabies are a contagious disease that’s caused by mites called Sarcoptes scabiei. The mites live in your skin where they also lay eggs. This is what causes the red, itchy skin rash that’s so common for scabies. When you initially get infected with scabies, it can take anywhere from 2-6 weeks for your symptoms to show up. If you’ve had it before, your symptoms won’t take much longer than 1-4 days after exposure to appear.

Don’t be fooled, though, you can already pass it on long before you show any symptoms and are aware that you have it in the first place. Generally, the mites are passed on via skin-to-skin contact – usually during sex – but can also be passed on via clothes, bedding, or towels. If your scabies infection isn’t treated, the mites are likely to live in your skin for months. If you suspect that you have scabies, you should make an appointment with your GP who will be able to prescribe you some medication that’ll eliminate any mites and their eggs. Once you know your infection is all cleared up, make sure to wash all your bedding, clothes, and towels as well.


Syphilis is caused by an infection with a bacterium called Treponema pallidum and often goes unnoticed early on. The disease usually presents in 4 stages:

  • Stage 1: A small, round, painless, and highly contagious sore develops around your genitals, anus or mouth. This sore is also known as a chancre and generally lasts for about 3-6 weeks. However, as the sore can develop in very hidden places and doesn’t cause any pain or discomfort, you might not even notice it.
  • Stage 2: Rough, non-itchy red or brown spots develop on your hands or the soles of your feet and you might notice some swollen lymph nodes, hair loss, headaches, weight loss, aches, fatigue, and fever.
  • Stage 3: In the latent stage, any visible symptoms will disappear giving you the false impression that your syphilis infection has cleared up. In reality, the bacteria are still in your body where it will cause further damage.
  • Stage 4: In the tertiary stage scabies turns into a life-threatening disease and affects the nervous system, brain, eyes, heart, and other organs. Which symptoms you experience is fully dependent on where the infection is. Possible symptoms are a loss of vision, hearing, or memory, mental illnesses, infections of the brain ad spinal cord, and, ultimately, death.

This is why early treatment is necessary as it’s the only way to ensure the infection won’t cause any permanent damage. Syphilis can be cured easily if it’s treated with a course of antibiotics early on. It can be fatal for a newborn, however, so pregnant women should always get tested for syphilis.

banana with condom

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a non-curable virus that can cause permanent liver damage. If you get infected with the virus, it will remain in your seme, blood, and any other bodily fluids for the rest of your life. When you experience your first outbreak, you will likely recover from your symptoms even if they are severe and further outbreaks can be managed well. Hepatitis B is passed on to others via sex, sharing razors, toothbrushes, or injection needles or via accidentally cutting your skin with a sharp object where the virus is present. There is a vaccine against Heptitis B that you can get but one shot doesn’t give you indefinite protection and you will likely need a booster shot every now and then to retain protection.


Humane papilloma virus (HPV) is a group of sexually transmitted viruses with some strains being more dangerous than others. They are actually the most common STD and everyone who has se will catch a strain of HPV at some point in their life. The virus affects mucous membranes on the cervix, anus, mouth, and throat, as well as the skin.

Most people won’t have any symptoms. Be aware that you can still pass it on through sex or genital-to-genital contact. If you have symptoms, however, you might develop genital warts or warts around your mouth throat. The most dangerous strains can lead to cervical, vulvar, penile, oral, or rectal cancer. Don’t panic, though, only a small number of strains will actually cause cancer!

Currently, there’s no known treatment for an infection with HPV but they often clear up on their own. If you’re diagnosed with the virus, your doctor will be able to assess you in order to keep on top of any future complications. There’s also a vaccine out there that’ll give you some protection against the most dangerous virus strains and will also reduce the transmission of HPV.


HIV is a virus that affects your immune system and will lead you to be more susceptible to other viruses, bacteria, and other STDs. In the early stages, right after contracting HIV, the symptoms might be mistaken with the flu as it causes headaches, nausea, rashes, fever, chills, aches & pains, swollen lymph nodes, and a sore throat. Your initial symptoms will clear up after about one month and then you’ll be a carrier of HIV, possibly without developing any severe symptoms for a while. You can experience certain symptoms like headaches, fevers, fatigue, or stomach issues, however.

If left untreated, your HIV infection will eventually cause AIDS which can be life-threatening. Bear in mind, though, that with the available treatment options today many people won’t even develop AIDS anymore! The virus is transmitted via unprotected sex, sharing needles for infection with others, direct contact with body fluids like semen, blood, breast milk, vaginal fluids, and rectal fluids. These will need to enter another person’s body to cause an infection, however.

HIV is currently not curable but there are great treatment options available to manage it well. The available treatments can reduce the amount of HIV to an undetectable level which also means that you can’t pass it on anymore. It’s important that you keep following your doctor’s treatment plan even if the virus is at an undetectable level as, otherwise, you’ll be able to pass it on again.

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