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What do STDs look like?

The information provided herein does not constitute an expert or medical advice, nor intended to replace such advice.

Sexual Health

We all know that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are something we need to keep in mind once we become sexually active. It’s very important to learn how to practice safe sex, and how to recognize symptoms that could point to a possible STD.

It’s important to mention that some STDs can share similar symptoms, so it’s not always possible to identify the cause of the infection without getting tested. STD tests are a simple, accurate, and effective method to screen for STDs and get a precise diagnosis.

Let’s discuss what STDs can look like so you know the signs that you should watch out for.

What do STDs look like?

Genital warts

Genital warts are caused by human papillomavirus, or HPV. HPV is very common; according to Planned Parenthood, most people who are sexually active will get infected by at least one strain of HPV at some point in their lives.

There are more than HPV strains, but not all of them cause warts. Some strains are more likely to cause warts and they’re considered to be low-risk, while high-risk strains can lead to various types of cancer over time. The strains that cause warts and cancer aren’t the same; however, it’s possible to become infected with different HPV strains simultaneously. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, signs of HPV can include:

  • Small, cauliflower-like bumps on your genital area that can be brown, pink, or flesh-colored
  • Itching in or around your genital area
  • Bleeding from the warts after intercourse

Genital ulcers or blisters

  • Herpes: genital and/or oral herpes outbreaks are characterized by the formation of clusters of small, fluid-filled blisters around the genitals or mouth. These blisters are preceded by a tingling, burning, or painful sensation. These blisters burst, become small ulcers, and then scab over before disappearing. 
  • Syphilis: the first sign of primary syphilis is usually a small, painless ulcer or chancre that appears where the bacteria entered the body (usually in the genital area). This chancre disappears on its own within a few weeks, when secondary syphilis starts.
  • Chancroid: this STD is caused by a bacteria called Haemophilus ducreyi, and it causes painful, superficial ulcers. According to the CDC, symptoms of chancroid appear within 4 to 10 days of exposure, and multiple ulcers can develop quickly. Unlike syphilis, chancroid causes painful ulcers with irregular borders.

Skin rash

The most common cause of an STD rash is secondary syphilis. As mentioned above, the secondary stage of syphilis starts within weeks of the initial infection, and when the primary chancre heals.

According to the University of Michigan State Health, secondary syphilis is characterized by a rash that usually consists of small, reddish brown spots or sores that can be flat or raised. This rash can spread over different parts of your body, including the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet. Additionally, you may see open sores on your mouth or other mucous membranes. The rash will usually heal on its own within two months without leaving scars.

Abnormal genital discharge

Abnormal vaginal or penile discharge is one of the most common signs of different STDs. Some of the STDs that can cause abnormal discharge include:

  • Gonorrhea: vaginal or penile discharge caused by gonorrhea typically has a cloudy appearance, and it can be white, beige, yellow, or green. This discharge often contains pus or mucus, and it can have an unpleasant smell. 
  • Chlamydia: according to the Cleveland Clinic, discharge caused by chlamydia may be white, yellow, or grayish with a strong, unpleasant smell. In men, this discharge could also be clear, watery, or mucus-like. 
  • Trichomoniasis: vaginal discharge from trichomoniasis can be watery, frothy, or thick, and it usually has a yellow-green color, according to the NHS. This discharge usually has an unpleasant, fishy smell.
  • Candidiasis: also known as yeast infections, they’re caused by a type of fungus called Candida. Candidiasis typically affects females, and although it’s not exactly an STD, the risk of developing this infection increases with sexual activity. Yeast infections cause a white, thick, cottage-cheese vaginal discharge that is also very itchy.
  • Bacterial vaginosis (BV): similarly to candidiasis, BV isn’t an STD itself, but sexual activity is a risk factor for its development. BV causes abundant vaginal discharge that can be white, gray, or greenish. This discharge can also look foamy and have an unpleasant smell, which is typically worse after intercourse.

Swollen lymph nodes

Your lymph nodes are small structures that are part of your immune system and help fight infections. Lymph nodes can become swollen after getting an STD — especially nodes around your genitals or throat, in the case of orally-transmitted STDs. According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the STDs that can cause swollen lymph nodes include:

  • Syphilis
  • Herpes
  • Chancroid
  • Lymphogranuloma venereum (a rare form of chlamydia)

As we mentioned above, many STDs can show similar symptoms, making it practically impossible to diagnose the right STD just by looking at the signs. It’s important to get tested so you can get an accurate diagnosis and start the right treatment right away. You can learn more about the best at-home STD tests at STDWatch.com.


Human Papillomavirus (HPV) - plannedparenthood.org

Genital warts - mayoclinic.org

Chancroid - cdc.gov

Stages of Syphilis - uofmhealth.org

Chlamydia - my.clevelandclinic.org

Trichomoniasis - nhs.uk

Sexually transmitted disease (STD) symptoms - mayoclinic.org

Dr. Andrea Pinto Lopez

Dr. Andrea Pinto Lopez

Mar 25, 2022

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