I often get asked what sexually transmitted diseases look like. In a nutshell, the 4 most common signs I see in clinic that suggest an STD are:
- Pain on urination
All of these can affect the penis, vagina, or anus.
There are other non-STD conditions that can cause these symptoms too, so don’t worry just yet. All it takes is a quick visit to your doctor to have it checked out (read here to find out what an STD clinic visit in Singapore is like).
Below are the five most common STDs in Singapore, and how to get tested for them:
1. Genital warts (Human Papilloma Virus)
I feel sorry for patients who come in with these cauliflower-like growths on their genitals. It's always tough explaining that HPV can never be completely eradicated, once they get the virus.
Unfortunately, HPV also happens to be the most common STD in the world, which is why it’s so important to get your HPV vaccination. Male sufferers outnumber females in Singapore by about 7 to 1.
You can catch HPV via intercourse, oral sex, or skin-to-skin contact during sex. Condoms can help reduce, but not eliminate, your chance of infection.
Symptoms: HPV infection doesn't cause any symptoms in most. Those who do will notice cauliflower-shaped growths on the genitals and sometimes around the anus (even without anal intercourse).
These warts can grow bigger over time.
Get tested: Other than a visual examination of the warts when they develop, there are no recommended tests to detect HPV.
How to treat: While warts can be frozen off, removing the wart doesn’t cure your infection. The warts can recur at any time. That is why vaccination is so important.
One of the most common STDs I see in clinic. It’s important to get screened for chlamydia if you think you may have been exposed, as many people don't experience any symptoms. It can also infect the mouth and rectum during oral and anal sex.
Chlamydia is especially devastating for women if undetected, as it causes infertility. Condoms are nearly 100 percent effective at preventing the spread.
Symptoms: Painful urination (a burning sensation), penile discharge in men and vaginal discharge in women. These symptoms usually creep up about a week after exposure.
Get tested: We collect a urine sample and swab the cervix or penis for discharge. The sample is then analysed to detect the presence of bacteria.
How to treat: Oral antibiotics, and no sex for two weeks. Then we repeat the test.
I swear that the screening nurses at STD clinics can pick this one up just by the colour and smell of the discharge.
Gonorrhoea is another bacterial infection that can cause infertility if untreated. The infection can also spread through your bloodstream and infect other parts of your body, including your joints and skin.
It is spread primarily through unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Condoms are nearly 100 percent effective at preventing transmission of the disease.
Symptoms: A yellow creamy discharge from the penis or vagina, and/or a burning sensation when you pee. Symptoms usually start 3 to 5 days after exposure. Like chlamydia sufferers, a significant proportion of those infected do not experience any symptoms.
Get Tested: Swabs and a urine sample is collected, which is sent to the lab for testing.
How to treat: Oral antibiotics, and no sex for 2 weeks. Then we repeat the test.
This is a killer if left untreated. It was dying out at one point, but has made a resurgence in Singapore lately.
Syphilis is spread through direct contact with a syphilitic sore, which appears mainly on the genitals, anal regions, and (less commonly) around the lips and mouth.
Symptoms: In the early stages, you may notice a painless sore in your genital region, or a rash affecting your palms and soles. Like most other sexually transmitted infections, there’s also a latent stage when an infected person looks perfectly healthy.
As the disease progresses, the bacteria can damage major internal organs, including your brain and heart, causing severe complications such as paralysis, dementia, and death.
Get tested: It can be diagnosed with a blood test or a swab taken from the sore.
How to treat: Three penicillin injections over the course of three weeks, spaced one week apart.
5. Genital herpes
Genital herpes is caused by two viruses: Herpes simplex type 1 (HSV1), which usually affects your mouth as cold sores, and herpes simplex type 2 (HSV2), which mainly targets your genitals.
Sexual contact can spread your partner’s oral herpes to your genitals or her genital herpes to your mouth. The virus can be spread even if you or your partner don’t have any signs of it.
Wearing condoms can help protect you, but not completely: they’re only 80 percent effective for preventing herpes transmission. That’s partly because the virus can live on parts of your skin that aren’t covered by the condom.
Symptoms: Up to 70 percent of infected people don’t have symptoms. The signs, if they appear, include painful urination and sores on the genitals, anus, thighs and buttocks. When first infected, some patients will also develop fevers, chills, swollen lymph nodes, headaches, and fatigue.
In severe outbreaks, it's common to experience flu-like symptoms and muscle ache.
Get Tested: Herpes is diagnosed by a visual inspection of the sore. Confirmation is via tissue samples from the sore and a blood test.
How to treat: There is no cure for genital herpes, but antiviral drugs can ease your symptoms – I often have patients who return to pick up a repeat supply of antiviral because they can feel when it's coming on again.
I hope you caught the take-home message from my blog post - that is, that most sexually transmitted diseases cause no symptoms at all!
So if you've had unsafe sex and think you may have been exposed, book an appointment for a sexual health screening at the DSC Clinic (Department of Sexually Transmitted Infections Control) today.