Sexually transmitted infections or STIs are common in the UK and all over the world. In some cases, they only cause mild discomfort, but others can be more serious. In order to identify and prevent STIs, here’s what you need to know.
Common types of STIs
Unfortunately, there are lots of different types of sexually transmitted infections lurking out there. The most commonly caught in the UK include:
This is the most common STI in the UK, largely because it is often symptomless. This means that sufferers don’t always realise they have it, and so pass it onto other sexual partners without knowing. You can catch Chlamydia through unprotected sexual intercourse. It particularly affects teenagers and young adults under the age of 25, if they are sexually active.
Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that can have serious and long-term consequences if not diagnosed and treated early enough. These include pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and further problems if it spreads to other parts of your body.
This is another common bacterial STI, passed on through unprotected sexual intercourse as well as the sharing of inadequately cleaned sex toys. Gonorrhoea can also have serious consequences, including problems when it is passed from a pregnant woman to her baby. It can even cause serious blindness in newborns if left untreated. Fortunately, this STI can be efficaciously treated with an antibiotic injection and antibiotic tablets.
● Genital Warts
Genital Warts are transmitted from one person to another through vaginal or anal sex. They are caused by a virus, which can be cleared up by your body over time. They can also be completely removed by laser surgery. If you have Genital Warts, you may notice painless growths or lumps around your genitals, as well as itching and/or bleeding.
● Genital Herpes
Similar to Genital Warts, Herpes is caused by a virus and can’t be completely cured - but its symptoms can be managed and usually clear up by themselves. It can cause small blisters, leading to red, open sores when they burst, as well as pain when urinating and an uncomfortable itching sensation around the genitals.
● Pubic Lice and Scabies
Getting Pubic Lice and Scabies is common. Both conditions are caused by tiny parasites. These infections are easily passed from one person to another through close bodily contact or sexual contact.
Also known informally as ‘crabs’, Pubic Lice cause itching and inflammation. The good news is that they can be easily and quickly treated at home, using a specialist insecticide cream or lotion.
Scabies can cause intense itching and a rash anywhere on the body. It is highly infectious, but it can take up to 8 weeks for the rash to appear. This means that everyone in the household needs to be treated for it at the same time, even if they don’t have symptoms. A pharmacist will recommend a lotion or cream to be applied over the whole body. This will need to be repeated a week later.
Other common STIs include Trichomoniasis and Syphilis.
Symptoms of STIs
The symptoms of STIs can vary, as it depends on which kind of infection a person has. The signs of an STI can also vary between men and women. But there are some symptoms that most have in common, including:
● Unusual, lumpy or unpleasant smelling discharge - from the genitals or anus
● Pain when having sex or using the toilet
● Skin growths or lumps near the genitals
● Itchy rashes, blisters or sores around the anus
● Unusual bleeding from the vagina.
If you think you have any of these symptoms, don’t delay making an appointment with your doctor. It may not be anything too serious, but it doesn’t hurt to get checked out just in case.
How do you catch an STI?
When it comes to how people pass on STIs to each other, the clue is in the name. Sexually transmitted infections are usually passed on from one person to another through unprotected sexual intercourse. This means sex without a condom. Some people don’t realise they have an STI, and can unknowingly infect one or more sexual partners.
What to do if you think you have an STI
The first and most important thing to do if you suspect you have an STI is to make an appointment with your doctor. If you have discomfort, pain or any unusual symptoms, it’s smart to get checked out just in case.
Even if you don’t have any symptoms but are worried after having unprotected sex, a trip to the doctor is still a good idea.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and may carry out an examination to find out what’s going on down there. You should then be diagnosed and given all the information you need about effective treatment - which may include prescription medication and how long it’ll take for the STI to clear up.
If you prefer, you can also go to a sexual health clinic for STI testing. This is where a doctor or nurse will carry out tests, ask you some questions and perhaps conduct a brief examination.
You’ll be given advice as well as treatment, including help on what to do if you suspect your sexual partners may also be infected. It’s very important to tell your sexual partner if you’re diagnosed with an STI, so they can get tested and treated. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, the clinic may be able to do it for you. They can keep your identity confidential if you don’t feel comfortable being named.
Some people prefer to go to sexual health clinics rather than their usual family doctor. This is because you may not always need an appointment, and you don’t always need to give any personal details if you don’t want to. You may also be able to get test results back faster compared to your usual doctor.
Crucially, you shouldn’t have sex or oral sex if you suspect you have an STI. Wait until you’ve seen a doctor, as otherwise you could risk passing on the infection to someone else.
What you can do to protect yourself from STIs
The best way to protect yourself from STIs is to always use a condom or dental dam when having sex. While these methods aren't 100% guaranteed to prevent the spread of infection, it is very close. Condoms and dental dams are highly effective when it comes to safe sex and STI prevention.
You can also reduce your risk of STIs by:
● Learning how to use a condom correctly - this applies to both men and women
● Talking to sexual partners about STIs, contraception and sexual health - before having sex
● Avoiding sex with people who have genital sores, rashes, discharge or other obvious symptoms of STIs
● Getting tested for STIs regularly - especially if you have unprotected sex or have a number of sexual partners.
● Not sharing sex toys or towels with another person.