Can STDs Go Away On Their Own?
If you're wondering how to get rid of an STD, know that you unfortunately can't just wish it away.
On some level, you probably know that STDs are far more common than your middle school sex ed teacher led you to believe. But get ready for a stat-attack: Every day, more than 1.2 million STDs are acquired worldwide, and in the United States alone there are nearly 20 million new STD cases each year, according to a report from The World Health Organization (WHO). Wowza!
What's more, experts say that they're likely even more prevalent than these numbers suggest, because the numbers reported above are only confirmed cases. Meaning, someone got tested and was positive.
"While it's best practice to get tested every year or after every new partner—whichever comes first—most folks with an STI don't have symptoms and most folks don't get tested unless they have symptoms," explains Sherry A. Ross, M.D., ob-gyn and author of She-ology. Hey, there's no way for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or WHO to know if you have an STI you don't even know about! There's also the chance that you think something is up, but you decide to wait it out and see if it'll "take care of itself."
Here's the thing: While STIs are definitely not a death sentence for you or your sexcapades, if left untreated, they can cause some serious health conditions. Below, experts answer all your questions about whether STIs can go away on their own, the risks of leaving an STI untreated, how to get rid of an STD if you have one, and why regular STI testing is so important.
What Is an STD, Anyway?
Called both STDs and STIs—sexually transmitted infections—are infections that are acquired through sexual contact. No, that doesn't mean just P-in-V. Hand stuff, oral sex, kissing, and even skivvy-free bumping and grinding can put you at risk. Oh, and let's not leave out the sharing of pleasure products such as toys (luv those, BTW).
Note: Many professionals are steering toward the new language of STI because the word "disease" means it's a condition that "impairs normal functioning and is typically manifested by distinguishing signs and symptoms," according to Merriam Webster. However, many of these such infections don't have symptoms and don't impair functioning in any way, hence the label of STI. That said, many people still know of and refer to them as STDs.
Generally speaking, STDs fall into a few main categories:
- Bacterial STDs: gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis
- Parasitic STDs: trichomoniasis
- Viral STDs: herpes, HPV, HIV, and Hepatitis B
- There's also scabies and pubic lice, which are caused by lice and mites, respectively
Because some STDs are spread via skin-to-skin contact and others are spread through bodily fluids, transmission is possible any time fluids (including pre-cum) are swapped or skin is touched. So, if you're wondering: "Can I get an STD without having sex?" The answer is yes.
Getting Tested Is the Only Way to Know If You Have an STD
Again, the majority of STIs are completely symptom-free. And, unfortunately, even when there are symptoms, those symptoms (vaginal discharge, itchiness, burning while peeing) are often subtle and can be easily explained away by other ~vagina funness~ like a yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, or a urinary tract infection (UTI), says Dr. Ross.
"You can't rely on symptoms to tell you if you have an infection, "she says, "Only getting a full STI screening done by your doctor can tell you if you have an infection." (Here's how often should get tested for STDs.)
Trust, the whole shebang is pretty quick and painless. "It usually involves some combination of peeing in a cup or getting your blood drawn or cultures taken," says Michael Ingber, M.D., board-certified urologist and female pelvic medicine specialist with The Center for Specialized Women's Health in New Jersey. (And many companies are also offering at-home STI/STD testing now too.)
How to Treat an STD
The bad news: If you're wondering how to treat an STD at home, the answer is, you usually can't. (Aside from crabs/pubic lice, but more on that below.)
Some goods news: If caught early enough, bacterial and parasitic STDs can be completed cured by antibiotics. "Gonorrhea and chlamydia are often treated with common antibiotics like doxycycline or azithromycin, and syphilis is treated with penicillin," says Dr. Ingber. Trichomoniasis is cured with either metronidazole or tinidazole. So, yes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trich can all go away, as long as you get treated.
Viral STDs are a little different. In almost all cases, "once someone has a viral STD, that virus stays inside the body forever," says Dr. Ross. Meaning, they cannot be cured. But don't freak out: "The symptoms can totally be managed." What that management entails varies from infection to infection. (See More: Your Guide to a Positive STI Diagnosis)
People with herpes can take an antiviral medication every day to prevent an outbreak, or at the onset of symptoms. People with HIV or Hepatitis B can take antiretrovirals, which reduce the infection's viral load, stopping the virus from replicating in the body thus preventing it from doing further damage in the body. (Again, this is different from curing the virus.)
HPV is a bit of an outlier in that, in some cases, the virus can go away on its own, according to the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA). While some strains cause genital warts, lesions, and, if currently active, will likely be found through abnormal pap test results, it can also present no symptoms and lie dormant for weeks, months, years, or your whole life, which means your pap results would come back normal. The virus cells can stay in your body for an indefinite period of time, but also may be cleared out in people with well-functioning immune systems, according to the ASHA.
So Can An STD Go Away On Its Own?
With the exception of HPV (and only sometimes), the general consensus is nope! Some STDs can "go away" with proper medication. Other STDs can't "go away," but with proper treatment/medication can be managed.
What Happens If You Don't Treat an STD?
Easy answer: Nothing good!
Gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, and chlamydia: If left undiagnosed and untreated, eventually, any symptoms of gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, and chlamydia that were present (if were any) will go away...but that doesn't mean the infection does, says Dr. Ingber. Instead, the infection can travel to other organs such as the fallopian tubes, ovaries, or uterus, and cause something called, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). It takes about a year for the initial infection to develop into PID, and PID can lead to scarring and even infertility, he says. So as long as you're getting tested regularly, you should be able to avoid any of these developing into PID. (Related: Does an IUD Make Your More Susceptible to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease?)
Syphilis: For syphilis, the risk of leaving it untreated is even greater. The original infection (known as primary syphilis) will progress to secondary syphilis approximately 4 to 8 weeks after infection," says Dr. Ingber, which is when the disease progresses from genital sores to full-body rashes. "Eventually, the infection will progress to tertiary syphilis which is when the disease travels to distant organs such as the brain, lungs, or liver, and can be deadly," he says. That's right, deadly.
HIV: The consequence of leaving HIV untreated is equally grave. Without treatment, HIV will slowly degrade the immune system and greatly increase your risk of other infections and infection-related cancers. Eventually, untreated HIV becomes AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. (This happens after 8 to 10 years without treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic.)
Scabies and pubic lice: Most other STI's may be primarily asymptomatic, but scabies and lice are not. Both are extraordinarily itchy, according to Dr. Ingber. And they will continue to be itchy until cured. Worse yet, if you develop open wounds from clawing at your junk, those wounds can get infected or lead to permanent scarring. The good news? Crabs or pubic lice are the one STD you can treat at home: They're usually treated with a special shampoo or lotion that can be bought OTC without a prescription. (Here's more on pubic lice, aka crabs.) Scabies, on the other hand, requires a prescription lotion or cream from your doc, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Herpes: Again, herpes can't be cured. But it can be managed via anti-virals, which reduce the number of outbreaks—or in some cases stop outbreaks from occurring altogether. But that doesn't mean taking anti-virals is a must; whether or not someone takes antivirals is a personal decision based on factors like frequency of outbreaks, if you're sexually active, how you feel about taking daily medication and more, according to Dr. Sheila Loanzon, M.D., board-certified ob-gyn and author of Yes, I Have Herpes.
HPV: When HPV does not go away on its own, it can potentially lead to cancer. Certain (not all!) strains of HPV can cause cervical, vulvar, vaginal, penile, and anal cancer (and in some cases, even throat cancer). Regular cervical cancer screenings and pap tests can help you catch HPV so that you can your doctor can monitor it, catching it before it becomes cancerous. (See: 6 Warning Signs of Cervical Cancer)
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, "the best line of action with STDs is prevention," says Dr. Ingber. That means using safer sex barriers with any partner whose STI status you don't know, or any partner who is STD positive, during vaginal, oral, and anal sex. And using that barrier properly. (Meaning, try not to make any of these 8 common condom mistakes. And if you're having sex with another person with a vagina, here's your safe-sex guide.)
"Even if you practice safer sex, you need to be getting tested once a year or after every new partner," says Dr. Ross. Yes, even if you're in a monogamous relationship! (Unfortunately, cheating happens). She adds: If you're having any symptoms it's best to get tested—even if you think it's "just" BV or yeast infection—because the only way to know for sure what type of infection you have is to go the doc. Plus, that way, if you do have an STD, you can catch it in its tracks and treat it.
I'll say it again for the people in the back: an STD can not go away on its own.
Nowadays, there are a lot of ways you can get tested at little or no cost. "Most insurance plans cover STI testing, including Medicaid plans. And Planned Parenthood, Local Health Departments, and some colleges and universities will offer free STI testing," says Dr. Ingber. So really, there's no excuse not to stay on top of your sexual health.