Common Questions When Worrying About STIs

Questions about sexually transmitted infections (STIs, what used to commonly be referred to as sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs) generally fall into one of two categories. The first category includes variations of what to do if you think you have an STI. The second centers on concerns regarding what to do after you find out you have an STI.

Both types of questions have one commonality—the people asking the question desperately need information that can help them figure out how to move on with their lives in a safe and healthy way.

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7 Tips for Preventing STIs

This quick reference can help. The following are answers to and discussion of the most common questions healthcare professionals get from people who are worried about the realities of having an STI.

1

How Soon Will You Know?

chart showing common incubation times

Verywell

How soon will you know if you have an STI after having unprotected sex?

The simplest answer to this question is that you can't know if you got an STI during an episode of unprotected sex until you get tested. That's because many, if not most, STI infections are asymptomatic. In other words, they don't cause any symptoms.

However, what you probably actually want to know is how long you have to wait until STI symptoms show up if you're going to see them. The answer varies from disease to disease. It could be anywhere from a few days to a few years.

To make matters even more confusing, there's also a window period between when you are infected and when you can first test positive for it. That varies with every STI and may extend to six months or more.

2

Could Your Partner Really Not Know They Have Herpes?

Virus herpes genital

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Could your partner really not know they had herpes before giving it to you? A lot of people who are newly diagnosed with herpes refuse to believe their sexual partners when they say they didn't know they had genital herpes.

Some of them may be lying. However, there are a lot of people who really have no clue they are infected with one of the herpes viruses (herpes simplex virus 1, or HSV-1, and herpes simplex virus 2, or HSV-2). Infections often have no symptoms.

In addition, healthcare providers do not regularly perform blood tests for herpes unless someone has a known exposure. Some healthcare providers aren't even willing to test people who specifically ask.

3

Is It Too Late to Use a Condom?

pile of condoms
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Should you use a condom after you have already had unprotected sex with a partner?

There is a common misconception that if you sleep with someone with an STI, you will automatically get that STI the first time. That isn't true.

Still, people often use that reasoning to continue not using condoms or other forms of barrier protection after they've slipped up. "After all," they rationalize, "if I was really at risk from this person, then I'm already in trouble." Fortunately, however, that isn't true.

It's certainly best to practice safer sex every single time you have sex. However, messing up once doesn't mean that you can't go back to doing what's right.

It's always worth using a condom the next time you have sex even if you didn't this time. Just because someone has an STI, it doesn't mean their partners will automatically get it.

4

Is Penile Discharge Gonorrhea?

Urine Cup

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Does discharge from your penis mean you have gonorrhea?

Penile discharge can be a symptom of any of a number of common STIs. The only way to tell which one you have—or if you have an STI at all—is to go visit your local healthcare provider or a free clinic and get tested.

There is no way for someone to self-diagnose what STI is causing a discharge without having a laboratory test done. Usually, testing is simply giving a urine or blood sample. You probably won't need to undergo a urethral swab.

5

Do You Have to Tell Your Partner You Have an STI?

Couple in bed
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Disclosing an STI to a potential partner is a good thing to do. That's true both because it's right and kind and because not disclosing could lead to a lawsuit. People deserve to have the opportunity to make informed decisions about their sex lives. That requires an open and honest discussion about risks.

Acknowledged STI infections aren't necessarily relationship deal breakers for people. That's true even with lifelong infections such as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and herpes. On the other hand, lying about an STI almost always will cause a problem. 

You don't need to bring up these topics on the first date. Just don't put the conversations off until the night you plan to first have sex. Having to deal with a heavy discussion in the heat of the moment is a bad idea. It may make it more likely your partner will make a decision they'll regret.

6

Can You Reduce Oral Sex Risks?

oral sex risk chart

Elizabeth R. Boskey

How can you reduce the risks of getting an STI from oral sex, and do you really need to?

A lot of people don't really think of oral sex as sex. However, it can pose a significant STI risk. That's why, unless you have both been comprehensively tested, it's a good idea to use condoms or dental dams whenever you have oral sex.

7

Does HPV Pose Risks for Men?

Human papilloma virus (HPV), coloured transmission electron micrograph (TEM)
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Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer. But that doesn't mean that men (or any person without a cervix) aren't at risk of other HPV-related diseases. Risks from HPV include a variety of sexually transmitted cancers and genital warts.

There is not yet a commercial HPV test for people with male genitalia (the usual HPV tests are done on cervical cells), but that doesn't mean HPV exposure and outcomes are not important. It's just that it's hard to figure out how to implement population-wide testing in a useful way.

People of any sex or gender (including men) can get the HPV vaccine to reduce their risks from the virus.

8

Won't You Know If You Have an STI?

woman talking to doctor
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The truth is, it's quite easy to be infected with an STI and have absolutely no idea you have been infected. STI testing is not part of routine healthcare practices. Furthermore, many STIs can have no symptoms for years.

So the only way you'd know for certain if you have an STI would be if you'd asked your healthcare provider to test you and gotten the results. Even then, your certainty would only last as long as you continued to avoid potentially risky behavior.

9

Could They Have an STI Without Cheating?

African American couple dancing
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If your partner has an STI, is it at all possible that they didn't have sex with a person outside of your relationship?

When someone who is in a long-term relationship that the partners agreed would be exclusive is diagnosed with an STI, it can be heartbreaking. The first instinct is almost always to assume that their partner has cheated on them. While in many cases that may be true, it isn't always.

If you both weren't tested before starting the relationship, or if you are early in the relationship, it's possible that your partner might have had an asymptomatic infection since before you got together. They also might have only infected you recently even if you've been involved for years.

10

Can I Get HIV From Oral Sex With a Prostitute?

HIV Particles

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Can you get HIV from oral sex with a sex worker you paid for sex?

This specific question comes up frequently. (It's most often asked by men who have just returned from trips abroad.) It actually blends several misconceptions, including: 

  • That the main STI risk of oral sex is HIV
  • That all sex workers have HIV
  • That STIs are transmitted every time you have sex

None of those statements is true.

The risk of acquiring HIV through oral sex may be relatively low. However, diseases like herpes, gonorrhea, and syphilis can all be spread quite easily during oral sex.

It's a good idea to use protection whenever you engage in any type of commercial sex (or casual sex). Not doing so potentially puts you at substantial risk. Besides, if you're aware enough to be worried about HIV after you've purchased oral sex, then you should know enough to take precautions in advance.

5 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. Lee KC, Ngo-metzger Q, Wolff T, Chowdhury J, Lefevre ML, Meyers DS. Sexually Transmitted Infections: Recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Am Fam Physician. 2016;94(11):907-915.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital herpes - CDC fact sheet (detailed).

  3. Menezes Filho JR, Sardinha JCG, Galbán E, Saraceni V, Talhari C. Effectiveness of syndromic management for male patients with urethral discharge symptoms in Amazonas, BrazilAn Bras Dermatol. 2017;92(6):779–784. doi:10.1590/abd1806-4841.20175453

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STD risk and oral sex - CDC fact sheet.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HPV and men - fact sheet.

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.