What It Feels Like to Have an STI

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Sometimes having a sexually transmitted infection (STI) doesn't feel like anything. Other times you'll have uncomfortable symptoms or visible sores. The truth is that sexually transmitted infections are stealthy. Far too often, people have no idea that they have one. But STIs can cause serious problems, like infertility and cancer.

There is a good reason why so many people want to know what it feels like to have an STI. They want to be sure that they can tell if they have one. That's true even for people who consistently practice safer sex. Their STI risk may be relatively low, but it's still possible for an infection to sneak in under the radar.

That is particularly true for STIs transmitted by skin-to-skin contact rather than through bodily fluids. External and internal condoms (also known as "male" condoms, or internal, also referred to as "female" condoms) and other barriers can reduce the risk of these diseases, which include herpes and HPV. But, unfortunately, they can't eliminate the risk entirely.

The truth is that it usually requires a trip to the doctor to feel relatively sure about whether or not you have an STI. Sometimes it is obvious, but more often, it's not. Furthermore, there is a wide variety of STIs out there, and each of them has its own symptoms.

Some Common STI Symptoms

What does it feel like to have an STI? The list of possible symptoms is pretty diverse. However, here are the most common symptoms you might experience:

  • Discharge from the penis, vagina or anus. Such discharge can be caused by chlamydia (CT), gonorrhea (GC), trichomoniasis (trich), non-gonococcal urethritis (NGU), bacterial vaginosis (BV)*, or lymphogranuloma venereum (LGV).
  • Anal or genital itching. This can be caused by CT, trich, BV, pubic lice, scabies, herpes (HSV), LGV, Molluscum contagiosum, and mycoplasma.
  • Painful sex, which can be caused by CT, trich, HSV, chancroid, and mycoplasma.
  • Pain during urination, which can be caused by CT, GC, trich, HSV, NGU, BV, mycoplasma, and chancroid.
  • Pain in epididymis or testis (from infection such as epididymitis or orchitis) can be caused by CT, GC.
  • Unusual bumps or sores. These can be caused by syphilis, chancroid, HSV, LGV, genital warts, and molluscum.
  • Pain with bowel movements. This can be caused by rectal infections with chlamydia, gonorrhea, LGV, and potentially other sexually transmitted pathogens.
  • Changes in vaginal odor, which can be caused by trich and BV.

Bacterial vaginosis is often considered to be a sexually associated disease rather than a sexually transmitted one.

Other STI Symptoms You May Experience

Even the broad list of symptoms above isn't complete. Other STI symptoms can include sore throats, body aches, eye problems, and neurologic symptoms. Furthermore, a list of symptoms doesn't really answer the question of what an STI feels like.

Quite often, having an STI feels like nothing at all. People can be living with an STI and have no symptoms for years. Depending on anything other than regular screening to determine whether or not you have an STI is simply unreliable.

In addition, not all things that first seem like STI symptoms—pain, strange lumps, discharge—will be caused by an STI. Other diseases, such as yeast infections, which are not sexually transmitted, can also cause these signs. Furthermore, most STI symptoms are non-specific enough that even doctors can't diagnose them without the help of a lab.

That's why if you do experience genital pain, recurring sores, discharge, or other symptoms, it's always a good idea to get them checked out. Whether a disease is sexually transmitted or not has nothing to do with how important it is for you to take care of it.

Finally, most people who ask what an STI feels like usually ask because they know they are at risk. They know this because they have had unprotected sex (also called "condomless" sex) with one or more partners whose STI status they are uncertain of. That on its own is a good reason to get tested. There is no other effective way to stay on top of your sexual health.

4 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. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Condom fact sheet in brief.

  2. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. What are the symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?

  3. Keaveney S, Sadlier C, O'Dea S, Delamere S, Bergin C. High prevalence of asymptomatic sexually transmitted infections in HIV-infected men who have sex with men: a stimulus to improve screening. Int J STD AIDS. 2014;25(10):7587-7561. doi:10.1177/0956462414521165

  4. Lanier Y, Castellanos T, Barrow RY, Jordan WC, Caine V, Sutton MY. Brief sexual histories and routine HIV/STD testing by medical providersAIDS Patient Care STDS. 2014;28(3):113–120. doi:10.1089/apc.2013.0328

Additional Reading

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.