How to Prevent Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs
More than one million sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are contracted every day worldwide, and a single instance of unprotected sex with an infected partner is enough to cause you to contract an STI. Chlamydia, gonorrhoea, genital warts and genital herpes are the most frequently diagnosed STIs in the UK, with many people passing on symptomless infections because they are unaware that they are infected. These infections are most common in young people aged 15-24 who have sex without using a condom.
The Causes of Sexually Transmitted Infections
The causes of sexually transmitted infections are bacteria, parasites, yeast and viruses. These germs are passed on by having vaginal, oral or anal sex without condoms, by sharing sex toys that are not washed or covered with a condom each time they are used by a different person, genital contact, or infected semen or vaginal fluid getting in your eye. Some STIs can be spread through non-sexual means, via blood or blood products, or from mother to child during pregnancy and stillbirth. Certain STIs, such as scabies and pubic lice, can be passed on through close body contact, by wearing infected clothing, or by using infected bedding or towels.
Can Using Condoms Prevent Sexually Transmitted Infections?
When used correctly and consistently, both male and female condoms are effective at protecting against STIs, including HIV. However, there is no 100% guarantee that using a condom will protect you from infection, which is why it is vital to know the sexual history of your partner. Remember that genital contact can cause infection — penetration is not required for infection to occur.
How to Tell If You Have an STI
Some STIs, like chlamydia, often do not show any obvious signs or symptoms. In fact, around 70% of females and 50% of males with chlamydia will have symptoms so mild that they go unnoticed. That is why it is vital to go for regular testing if you are having sex, especially unprotected sex.
Common symptoms of STIs include vaginal or urethral discharge, a burning sensation when weeing, genital ulcers and abdominal pain. In women, chlamydia can also cause heavy periods, and bleeding during or after sex, or between periods. Other signs that you may have an STI include small, painful blisters; itching or tingling genitals; and pain or tenderness in the testicles. It is possible to experience symptoms of certain STIs, such as syphilis, in your throat or rectum, so if you notice a persistent or painful rash in either of these areas and think you may have been exposed to infection, seek advice from a doctor as soon as possible.
How STI Testing Works
You can get tested and treated for sexually transmitted infections at a sexual health clinic or GUM (Genitourinary Medicine clinic). Some general practices, contraception clinics, young people’s services and pharmacies may also provide testing for some infections. Advice, information and tests are free and confidential, but you may have to pay a prescription charge for any treatment. STI testing can involve an examination of your genitals, mouth, anus and skin, testing your urine and blood, and taking swabs from your urethra, vagina, cervix, throat or rectum. You won’t automatically be tested for all infections and all tests are optional. Results can be immediate, but other times you may have to wait for a text message or call.
If I Don’t Get Cervical Smear Tests When Prompted, Am I More Vulnerable to STIs?
While cervical smear tests don’t directly test for STIs, your results may show that you have an STI — usually, HPV (Human Papillomavirus). If you are sexually active, by regularly having STI tests and going for cervical smear tests when prompted, you can give yourself the best protection against undiagnosed cervical cancer and HPV.
How to Treat STIs
STIs caused by bacteria, yeast or parasites, such as syphilis, gonorrhoea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis, are treated using antibiotics. There is no cure for hepatitis B, herpes simplex virus, HIV and HPV, which are STDs caused by a virus, but their symptoms can be controlled using medicines.
Can STIs Increase My Chances of Getting HIV and Other Serious Illnesses?
Unfortunately, yes. Some STIs, like herpes and syphilis, can increase your risk of contracting HIV by three times or more. HPV infections can cause cervical cancer, while gonorrhoea and chlamydia are major causes of Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). Some STIs, such as gonorrhoea and syphilis, can lead to infertility or cause pregnant women to miscarry. It is vital not to have unprotected sex with a new partner while pregnant if you do not know that they have recently tested negative for STIs.
Do Sexually Transmitted Infections Go Away on Their Own?
Some viral STIs stay dormant in your body for life after infection, including herpes and HIV. Non-viral STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea can be treated, but because they often show mild symptoms — or none at all — many people don’t seek treatment when they are infected. STIs do not go away on their own, even if the symptoms do. If STIs are not diagnosed and treated, infection can harm your fertility and increase your risk of contracting HIV. Infection can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease or chronic pain and can be passed to children during pregnancy or childbirth.
It’s also important not to have sex while receiving treatment for an STI, as you could still pass the infection on. You should wait at least seven days following the completion of your course of medication before having sex. Genital herpes will become dormant and remain in your body following treatment of an infection. In some cases, it can then become active again and cause further outbreaks, making it vital to use protection when having sex.