Everyone Should Know About Asymptomatic STIs

There's a reason STIs are called the hidden epidemic

Many people believe that they'd know they'd have a sexually transmitted infection (STI) because they'd notice any STI symptoms. But, sadly, that isn't so. The incredible frequency of asymptomatic STIs is one factor that make STIs so common.

The truth is, when STI awareness is based on symptoms alone, most people with a sexually transmitted infection don't even know that they are sick. It is not uncommon for someone living with an STI to have no STI symptoms. In other words, they are asymptomatic.

Asymptomatic STIs are more common than not. There is a very high prevalence of symptom-free sexually transmitted infections. People can be, and often are, living with an STI for many years without knowing it. During that time, if they're not careful, they can transmit the infection to some or all of their sex partners.


7 Tips For Preventing STDs

Some scientists call STIs the hidden epidemic. They're common. They're invisible. Finally, they can have serious long-term health consequences—including infertility and even (rarely) death. Why is it important to be aware of how common it is for people to have an asymptomatic STI?


There Is a High Risk of Infection

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STIs aren't transmitted every time people have sex. However, they can get around pretty quickly.

If one person with an STI has condomless sex with a new partner each year, and each of them has condomless sex with one new partner a year, and these partners each did the same, in 10 years, the first person could have transmitted an STI to over 1,000 people.

If each person has sex with two new partners a year, that number goes up to more than 59,000.


You May Have No Symptoms

woman's lips
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Chlamydia is the most common treatable STI. However, of people with chlamydia, three-quarters of the women and half of the men have no STI symptoms. Half of all women with gonorrhea and 10% of men don't show symptoms.

Many other STIs can also lie dormant for months or years. No wonder that the Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are around 20 million new sexually transmitted infections in the U.S. each year.

It's very easy to have an STI and not know about it. That's why safer sex should be the rule rather than the exception.


There May Be Long-Term Damage

Embryologist Ric Ross holds a dish with human embryos at the La Jolla IVF Clinic on February 28, 2007, in La Jolla, California. The clinic accepts donated embryos from around the country through The Stem Cell resource which are then given to stem cell research labs for research.
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An STI may not be making you feel sick right now. That doesn’t mean that it is not having an effect on your, or your sexual partner’s, health. Left untreated, some STIs can cause long-term damage to your reproductive tract, such as pelvic inflammatory disease. This can make it difficult or impossible to have children.

Over time, other STIs, such as syphilis and HIV, can lead to whole body illness, organ damage, or even death.


Screening Is Essential

Male patient and doctor in discussion in exam room
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The only way to tell if you or your sexual partner has an STI is to be tested. Before starting a new sexual relationship both you and your partner should be tested for the most common STIs.

If you aren’t comfortable having your regular doctor examine you, testing can also be done at a family planning or STI clinic. Many clinics even have free, or highly subsidized, tests for people with limited incomes.

But even if your tests come back negative, the best way to keep them that way is to consistently practice safer sex. After all, it can take a while for STI tests to be accurate. In addition, sometimes people have multiple sexual partners, which means there are multiple potential routes for exposure.


You Can Spread An STI With No Symptoms

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Just because you don’t have symptoms doesn’t mean you can’t transmit an STI to your partner. Some people who know they are living with an incurable STI think they can’t transmit the infection when they don’t have symptoms. However, this isn’t true.

Herpes, for example, is transmissible even when a person isn’t having an outbreak. So are HPV, the virus that causes genital warts and cervical cancer, and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Since these infections can’t be cured it is important for people who have them to take precautions with all their sexual partners. With treatment, these infections aren't usually physically devastating. However, they can take a strong emotional toll. 


Incurable Is Not Untreatable

Bottles of antiretroviral drug Truvada are displayed at Jack's Pharmacy on Nov.23, 2010, in San Anselmo, California. A study published by the New England Journal of Medicine showed that men who took the daily antiretroviral pill Truvada significantly reduced their risk of contracting HIV.
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Even if you have an incurable STI, there are still precautions you can take to improve your health and protect your partners. One such precaution is suppressive therapy.

For example, people with herpes should consider taking a drug such as Valtrex. This form of treatment doesn't only reduce the likelihood of an outbreak, it also lowers the probability of transmitting the virus to your partner. However, since it does not remove the risk of transmission completely, it is important to always use safer sex practices.

Know that external and internal condoms are not 100% effective at preventing herpes or HPV. That's because these viruses are transmitted skin to skin. Treatment as prevention is also a good way to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV.


Your Health Is Your Responsibility

A pile of condoms
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Take charge of your own sexual health. Safer sex practices and other precautions can help keep you free of sexually transmitted infections.

Just remember that you can’t rely on how you feel to tell you if you’re well. Therefore, it’s your responsibility to get tested and treated if you could possibly be at risk. Not just your health, but also the health of those you love, is in your hands.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you have an STI and not know it?

    Yes. It is possible to contract a sexually transmitted infection and not have any symptoms. People can live with an STI for many years without knowing they are infected. In fact, STIs are asymptomatic more often than not. What’s more, asymptomatic STI can still be transmitted to another person. 

  • What STIs have no symptoms?

    Several STIs may have no noticeable symptoms. Commonly asymptomatic STIs include chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), and trichomoniasis.

  • How can you tell if you have an STI?

    The only way to know for certain that you do not have a sexually transmitted infection is to get tested. Testing can be done through your primary healthcare provider, gynecologist, or family planning clinic. 

    People who are sexually active with more than one partner should be tested for STIs regularly. Couples who are monogamous should be tested at the start of a new relationship before having unprotected intercourse. 

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. HealthyPeople.gov. Sexually transmitted diseases.

  2. Malhotra M, Sood S, Mukherjee A, Muralidhar S, Bala M. Genital chlamydia trachomatis: an update. Indian J Med Res. 2013;138(3):303-316

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually transmitted diseases.

  4. NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Sexually transmitted diseases.

  5. Planned Parenthood. Get tested

  6. Sauerbrei A. Herpes genitalis: diagnosis, treatment and prevention. Geburtshilfe Frauenheilkd. 2016;76(12):1310-1317. doi:10.1055/s-0042-116494

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes — CDC fact sheet (detailed).  

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Condom effectiveness. Fact sheet for public health personnel.

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.