Everything you need to know – but were too afraid to ask – about Sexually Transmitted Infections
Sometimes it can be embarrassing to talk about sex, and when it comes to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) those discussions can be even more difficult. But like it or not, when we become sexually active, we risk exposure to STIs. Regardless of whether the intimate contact you’re having is heterosexual, same-sex, oral, or even just kissing, when you involve another person in your sexual activity you open yourself up to the possibility of contracting an STI or passing one on to your partner. So, despite the fact that there can be a certain stigma attached to STIs, they’re definitely something that warrants open and honest discussion. With that in mind, here are the facts about STIs that you definitely need to know but might have been too afraid to talk about.
What are STIs?
You’ve likely heard the terms ‘sexually transmitted infections’ and ‘STIs’, or you might know these infections as ‘sexually transmitted diseases’ (STDs) or ‘venereal disease’ (VD). As the names suggest, they’re infections that are spread through sexual contact with another person. What you might not know is that sex isn’t the only way that STIs can be transmitted – but we’ll get to that later.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are over 30 different kinds of bacteria, viruses and parasites that can be transmitted via intimate contact – some are curable, some aren’t; some have obvious symptoms, some don’t; and some can cause serious, long-term reproductive health issues. That’s why important to be aware of STIs, how they can be transmitted, the problems they can cause, and how you can protect yourself and your partner.
The facts on STIs…
The majority of STIs are caused by 8 of the 30 pathogens known to be transmitted through intimate contact, and of those 8 infections only 4 are curable at this point in time – the other 4 are viruses that are incurable, but whose symptoms or disease processes can be modified or lessened through various treatments. In addition to these 8 STIs there are other relatively common infections and parasites that are linked to intimate contact, and definitely worth being aware of, such as pubic lice, and vaginitis [consider a Stigma Health blog on vaginitis] (an umbrella term for a range of vaginal infections, including thrush [consider a Stigma Health blog on thrush] and bacterial vaginosis).
What are the most common STIs and how can you get them? [Stigma Health have SOME articles and/or blogs on common STIs but not others – need to get more blogs or info to link to, to keep users on the Stigma website]
The 4 most common curable STIs are syphilis, gonorrhoea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis. Syphilis, gonorrhoea, and chlamydia are all bacterial infections that are spread through bodily fluid and intimate skin-to-skin or sexual contact, including unprotected oral, vaginal, and anal sex, and can also be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy and childbirth. Trichomoniasis is caused by a microscopic parasite that’s spread via unprotected genital contact and, in exceedingly rare cases, it can be spread through sharing of personal items (e.g., towels and damp clothing) and bathwater, or picked up from a damp toilet seat or public pool; mother to baby transmission is rare.
The 4 most common incurable STIs are Hepatitis B (Hep B), Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and Human Papillomavirus (HPV). These 4 viruses are most often spread through intimate skin-to-skin or sexual contact, via semen, vaginal and rectal fluids, and by mother to baby during pregnancy and childbirth. Herpes can also be spread through kissing and oral sex, through unprotected mutual masturbation (i.e., getting or giving a hand job, or fingering or being fingered). Both Hepatitis B and HIV can also be spread through blood, for example by sharing injecting, piercing and tattooing equipment, and HIV can also be spread via breast milk. Hep B can be spread through the sweat, tears and saliva of an infected person, but HIV can’t be transmitted this way unless these bodily fluids are mixed with the infected person’s blood.
What are the symptoms of common STIs?
Sometimes STIs won’t show any symptoms at all, which is why you should always practice safe sex. When an STI does show symptoms, they will vary between specific STIs and between men and women. However, common symptoms that may indicate you have an STI include:
- Unusual discharge or bleeding from the penis or vagina
- Itchiness in the pubic area, or in or around the vagina
- Pain or discomfort when urinating or during sex
- Rashes, bumps, sores, or ulcers on or around the mouth, vagina or penis, testicles, anus, buttocks, or thighs
How is an STI usually diagnosed?
Diagnosis of the most common STIs usually involves a swab, urine test or blood test, depending on the STI. Talking to your doctor may help, if you’re comfortable discussing your symptoms, and they may also want to do an examination. If you’re not comfortable talking about your symptoms, Stigma Health can help you with getting a quick and confidential referral for pathology testing.
How are STIs usually treated?
Some STIs will resolve themselves without treatment, but if you show symptoms and require treatment, curable STIs will usually be treated via a course of antibiotics targeted toward the specific pathogen responsible for the infection. Some STIs, including pubic lice and trichomoniasis, are usually treated using an oral or topical medication.
How can you prevent yourself from getting an STI, or passing one on to your partner?
Easy! The safest way to prevent yourself from getting an STI is to abstain from sex, but while abstinence is the most effective way of preventing transmission of an STI, most people would agree that it’s neither practical nor enjoyable! The next best way to prevent transmitting an STI is to always use barrier protection (like a male or female condom or dental dam) and to regularly get tested for STIs.
Limiting the number of sexual partners you have, and/or only engaging in mutual masturbation, could help to reduce your risk of getting or passing on an STI – but make sure you always use protection and practice good hand hygiene before and after sexual contact.
Before having sex with a new partner, it’s always a good idea to discuss your sexual history. If you know that you have an STI you aren’t required to tell a prospective sexual partner, but you are required to take reasonable precautions and you can be prosecuted (fined or sent to gaol) for not doing so.
Are there vaccines for STIs?
Some incurable STIs can be vaccinated against, for example there are currently vaccines available for HPV and Hep B, and while you can’t be vaccinated against HIV, a medication known as PrEP can help prevent transmission. Treatment of incurable STIs is generally targeted towards management of symptoms – for example, genital warts (caused by HPV) can be removed surgically or via cryotherapy, but this is done purely to improve the cosmetic appearance of the genitals; HIV can be managed by antiretroviral medication that can reduce a person’s viral load to a level where the virus won’t progress and can’t be transmitted to other people; and medication can help manage HSV (herpes) and reduce severity of symptoms, frequency of outbreaks, and risk of spread/ease of transmission.
Where can you get more information on STIs?
If you’d like more information on STIs, check out our FAQs and other blogs. You can also contact our sexual health experts at Stigma Health directly, or go to our Resources page for links to other helpful services.