What does an STD feel like?

13th February, 2023 • 9 min read

What’s it like to be told you have sexually transmitted disease (STD)? Read real-life experiences from women, including how they felt when they found out and broke the news to partners, and how they came to terms with it.

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Being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease (STD) – also known as a sexually transmitted infection (STI) – can come as a huge shock. You might have had no symptoms, or never thought you were at risk as you’ve only been with one partner.

“It can be scary and isolating, and you may feel stigmatized,” says Dr Ann Nainan, family doctor and Healthily expert.

But STDs are an increasingly common problem in the US and the UK, where cases have been rising rapidly over the past 10 years. “More than 9 million women get diagnosed with an STD in the US each year,” says Dr Ann. “And STDs can be especially harmful for women, so we need to talk about this – and raise awareness of how common it is, how to cut your risk, and how to get treatment.”

But it can be hard to speak out when there’s still a stigma – some women say they feel judged, and that there’s an assumption they’ve been sleeping around.

Other women worry about the potential long-term health risks of undiagnosed STIs, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), infertility and ectopic pregnancy. But most infections are very treatable. (Read more about types of STDs and how they’re treated).

Read on to learn what women say about their experiences of having an STD.

I didn’t have any symptoms

Not having any symptoms is common with some STDs – so you may have no clue that you’ve picked up an infection.

“I had no idea I had chlamydia”

“I had no indication and only found out when my boyfriend called me and said, ‘Look, we have a problem’,” says Gaia, in her 20s. “I was really confused and didn’t really know what chlamydia was because I’d never experienced it before.

“Jesse and I hadn’t been together too long, so I was concerned about how this was going to affect our relationship. It was a new relationship and the first time I’d been in love, so I was quite scared.

“But I think ultimately it made me and Jesse stronger. Now we don’t feel afraid to talk about personal things.”

“Gonorrhea and chlamydia were only picked up by a routine urine test”

“My doctor let me know that they found chlamydia and gonorrhea in my urine after a routine medical examination,” says one 20-something woman. “I was treated immediately (injection and one pill).
“I didn't have a partner at the time, but my previous partner did tell me that he experienced some abnormalities on his penis and told me to go get checked out. I’d had blood tests done and they came back negative – not thinking to do the urine. I told a couple of my friends, no family.”

What my symptoms were

Symptoms of an STI can include unusual vaginal discharge or discharge from your penis or bottom, and pain when you pee, as well as eye and throat symptoms.

Read more about chlamydia symptoms.

“Pain when I urinated was my symptom of herpes”

Molly made a CDC video about her experiences of being diagnosed with and living with genital herpes.

“My symptoms were an incredible burning sensation, especially when I urinated. I went immediately to the doctor.

“I thought my life was basically over and that I would never get married, live with someone and raise children. I felt shunned in a way by people who didn’t understand what it was.”

Read more about the symptoms of genital herpes.

“Stabbing pain and bleeding was gonorrhea”

“The first and only time I got gonorrhea I didn’t even know I had it,” says Jesse. “It was terrifying. I remember being on my period and feeling like the cramps were getting even more painful, like someone was actually stabbing my uterus.

“Then one night, I was chilling with my roommates, watching TV, when I felt this big push and blood was literally everywhere. It stained my couch and my clothes.

Jesse went to the hospital and was told everything was fine, but she later got tested at a Planned Parenthood clinic.

“After a few days, I got a call telling me I tested positive for gonorrhea! I had to wait another week in which I was still in pain, to get a shot in my butt and take some antibiotics, and wait another week before having sex again. I’ve learned my lesson — now, I ALWAYS use a condom.”

How I felt when my partner broke the news

“My husband swore that he had been faithful and this was from before we were together”

One woman shares how she was diagnosed with chlamydia in a monogamous relationship with her husband.

“Forget the stereotype of catching an STI due to having sex with too many partners – I caught mine with the first guy I ever had sex with. We married a few months later and I didn't realize I had an STD until my first pap smear, about a year later.”

She was surprised to get the diagnosis, and her husband said he’d been faithful and this was from before they were together. He confessed he’d caught chlamydia before and thought the treatment had worked, but he’d never gone back to get checked again.

“I felt shame while I was getting treated. I felt that it was somehow my fault. It did teach me a lesson – that anyone can catch an STI, so be safe.”

“I cried myself sick when my partner told me he had gonorrhea”

One woman reveals how upset she was when her partner (a married coworker) announced he’d caught gonorrhea… over dinner in a crowded restaurant.

“I stupidly thought he was going to tell me he was leaving his wife (like he promised). Instead, in the middle of a beautiful, crowded restaurant, he announced he had gonorrhea.

“I went home, cried myself sick, and then made an appointment to get tested. Sure enough, I was positive. I didn't have any symptoms at all, so I guess I’m glad he had the guts to tell me so I could get treated right away. My doctor put me on a course of antibiotics and I’ve been clean ever since.”

How feelings of shame have an impact

Women say they still feel the stigma of an STD diagnosis, and sometimes struggle with feelings of shame.

“I thought they’d think I was gross”

One anonymous woman says her feelings of shame stopped her telling people about her chlamydia.

“I learned a lot from the experience, but the one downside was I didn’t have the guts to tell any of our friendship group about the diagnosis, because I thought they’d think I was gross. So who knows how many other girls he infected?”

“Herpes is manageable”

“The shift from being so devastated originally about my diagnosis of herpes, to the happiness I now feel about my life, developed slowly over time,” says Molly. “And as I became more educated, I was able to educate others.

“My advice for people living with herpes would be to realize that although the word ‘incurable’ is used, it is definitely manageable.”

Getting treated

Most STIs are curable with medical treatments, and those that aren’t – such as herpes and HIV – can be effectively managed with treatments.

“My trichomoniasis was cured with medicine”

Luna caught trichomoniasis (trich) after a condom burst:

“It didn’t result in pregnancy, but I got an STD. Fortunately, it wasn’t serious. I caught (trichomonas vaginalis), which is a parasite, which can reside in the vagina, and the man can transmit it without knowing it.

“The solution was easy, I took the prescribed medicine and I was cured, and told him to take the medicine as well.

“Most people think they are immune to STDs… are afraid to have themselves checked and still think they’re 100% healthy.… (But) if you decide to have sex without protection for whatever reason, you both should be checked before.”

Read more about how trichomoniasis is diagnosed and treated.

How I came to terms with having an STD

“I came to realize I had nothing to be ashamed of”

One woman was initially horrified to have pubic lice (‘crabs’):

“I found a pubic louse on my stomach… I freaked out because I hate insects and my instinct was to run to my mum who was in the house. I shaved off all of my body hair.

“The thought of insects living on my body doesn’t really please me. I searched online for a treatment and got the shampoo they recommended. I was shell shocked because I really didn’t see this coming.”

“I was ashamed of myself… But I came to realize that it’s very common and I had nothing to be ashamed of.”

“There are many more things more tragic than having herpes”

This married woman talks about how she dealt with having herpes, which she believes she caught years before meeting her husband.

“While it sucks to have herpes, it's not a death sentence. If you ever have to deliver this kind of news to a partner, don't do what I did and treat it like the end of the world.

“There are many things more tragic than herpes: cancer, HIV, a hurricane that destroys your home, a loved one with advanced Alzheimer's not remembering your name. All of those things are worse than herpes.”

Where to find out more about STDs

Want to know more? For in-depth information about types of STDs, common symptoms (or lack of them), how they’re spread, the treatment options and how to reduce your risk, check out our STD guide.

Medical disclaimer: Quotes are the views of the authors of these statements, and aren’t necessarily the views of Healthily, its medical team or writers.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.