Sexually Transmitted Infections
Any infection that is spread from one partner to another during sex will be termed a STI and the big message here is that they are very common and it doesn’t mean that someone has been promiscuous if they have one. Some STIs have no symptoms, especially in men, and they will often be completely unaware that they have passed on an infection. Women again can have no symptoms and it may be discovered when having tests for fertility issues or during pregnancy or when having urinary symptoms. So let’s lose the shame and guilt please on this topic and focus on being aware and getting appropriate help when we need it.
Why does it matter?
The problem with STIs is that there are some that can be causing damage without us being aware. Chlamydia which we will look at more closely below, if untreated can affect fertility. Syphilis and HIV again covered below both have long term health repercussions and most of them can cause problems in pregnancy or can be passed on to the baby during delivery.
So let’s talk about the most common STIs…
Chlamydia is the most common STI in the UK with women aged 20 to 24 most likely to be infected. It can be spread by vaginal, oral or anal fluid and can present with a vaginal discharge, pain after sex, discomfort in the lower abdomen or irregular bleeding, but for the majority of women will be symptom free. Left untreated chlamydia can damage a woman’s fallopian tubes leaving them susceptible to ectopic pregnancies and infertility. You can prevent Chlamydia by using condoms or dental dams every time you have sex. Having a regular sexual health screen if you are sexually active is also good practice to detect any STI early and prevent spread. Chlamydia is easily treated by a course of antibiotics which your own GP, Genito Urinary Medicine (GUM) clinic, or iCASH services can issue.
Genital Herpes is caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus and it is thought that around 23% of adults in the UK carry the virus that causes it. The virus is similar to the one that causes coldsores and can lie dormant for long periods of time and then present with sores around the genital and anal area. There is often accompanying pain and there can be an odd tingling sensation before the characteristic rash of small fluid filled spots appears. Many women are unaware they carry the virus which isn’t always picked up on STI testing if the spots aren’t present. Once again the best way to protect yourself is to use condoms and if you have any pain or spots on your genital area then it is worth getting tested. There is no way to clear your system of the virus but you can have medication on hand to use for outbreaks with some women using it rarely and others daily depending on how frequently you have outbreaks.
Gonorrhoea is another bacterial STI which is spread through sexual contact. 50% of women and 10% of men will have no symptoms but it can present with a discharge similar to BV, pain after sex or irregular or heavy bleeding. It can be prevented by using condoms and can be detected on swabs and treated by antibiotics.
Syphilis is again caused by a bacterial infection spread by sexual contact. It has seen a huge increase in diagnosis over the last 10 years mostly in young men. It will present with a painless sore in the genital area that will last for about 6 weeks. It is diagnosed by a blood test and treated with antibiotics. It is important to treat early as it can present years later with serious health problems.
HIV infection has also increased in the last 10 years. It is spread by sexual contact or blood contact and again it is thought that a large number of people are unaware that they are carrying the virus. It will present with viral symptoms and affect the immune system. It will be diagnosed by a blood test and there are now very effective medications that can treat the virus and stop it damaging the body.
How do we prevent these infections?
Using protection in the form of a condom is the best way to prevent a STI but sometimes we know that can go wrong. Condoms break or come off. Getting tested regularly is another good way to protect yourself.
There are lots of online options to self swab which will detect most of the common STIs but if you think you might have been in contact with Syphilis or HIV, or if you have an open sore that could be herpes or a wart then you need to attend a clinic to be tested. This could be your own GP or local GUM clinic or there are a number of private clinics that will also offer testing. As discussed these infections are common and not something to be embarrassed about. All of them are best caught early and treated.