Sexually transmitted diseases: all the information you need

    

Sexual health

Let's be honest for a second - how many of you have had unprotected sex? And how many have never been tested for a sexually transmitted infection?

According to TSR's survey of over 2,000 students, 58% of sexually-active students have never been tested for STIs, with 66% previously having unprotected sex.

Why is this so important? Well for starters, Chlamydia is the most commonly-diagnosed STI in under-25s, affecting both men and women. If left untreated, it can lead to serious health problems and affect fertility. So if you're sexually active, it's time to take charge of your health!

If you're entering into a new relationship, it's important that you can openly chat about your sexual health. But how do you have these chats without causing embarrassment? Dr Catherine Hood, GP and relationship expert, shared some great tips for talking about STI testing:

  1. Make the first move
    Firstly, don’t be afraid to make the first move. Think about it as the natural next step in your relationship and not something to be feared and avoided. Choose a quiet moment – you could begin the conversation by saying something like: “As we’ve been seeing each other for a while now, there’s something I really want to talk about...”
     
  2. Go together
    Suggest that you both go and get tested for STIs together and treat it as a positive step in your relationship. Share your own experiences of being tested and treated if you feel you can – it’s important that you’re as open and honest as you can be.
     
  3. Arm yourself with the facts
    If your partner asks you why you’re worried about STIs, make sure you are able to tell them how common STIs are and how some can lead to serious health problems for both of you.
     
  4. Remember testing is easy and painless
    If your partner is anxious about STI testing, reassure them that there really is nothing to worry about… For example, the test for Chlamydia in men is always a urine sample (pee in the pot). The Chlamydia test for women can be either a urine sample or a self-taken swab of the lower vagina.

See - easy right?

Now to make sure you're all clued up on STIs, here a list of the most common STIs below.

Couple having fun

Common types of STIs

Chlamydia 

The facts
Chlamydia is caused by a bacterium called Chlamydia Trachomatis. The bacteria are found in the semen of men and vaginal fluids of women who have the infection. Chlamydia is easily passed from one person to another through unprotected sex. You can also catch it from oral or anal sex. It is the most common STI in the UK, being most common in men and women under 25.

Symptoms
Chlamydia is known as the ‘silent’ infection due to its lack of noticeable symptoms. 75% of women and 50% of men with Chlamydia have no symptoms and so the best way to find out if you have it, is to take a test.

Treatment
If left untreated, Chlamydia can lead to infertility, long-term pelvic pain and other serious health problems. Because Chlamydia often doesn’t have any symptoms, testing is now being routinely offered to all sexually active people under-25-year-olds, in a range of primary care health services across England. This includes many GP surgeries, community and sexual health clinics and some community pharmacies – so if you’re offered a test, it’s important to say ‘yes’! Testing is confidential, easy and painless and Chlamydia itself is easy to treat. For men, the test is always a urine sample (pee in the pot). In many areas, the test for women can be either a urine sample or a self-taken swab. The swab is done yourself in private – quick, simple and painless.

Gonorrhoea

The facts
It’s caused by bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae or gonococcus. It is easily passed between people through:

  • unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex
  • sharing vibrators or other sex toys that have not been washed or covered with a new condom each time they're used

The bacteria can infect the entrance to the womb (cervix), the tube that passes urine out of the body (urethra), the rectum and, less commonly, the throat or eyes.

Gonorrhoea is not spread by kissing, hugging, swimming pools, toilet seats, or sharing baths, towels, cups, plates or cutlery. The bacteria cannot survive outside the human body for long.

Symptoms 
Women generally get a nasty yellow/green and kind of watery discharge; alongside, the obligatory pee-pain and bleeding between periods. Men can also get the same discharge and pain. Perhaps the grossest of all; anal itching and discharge is possible. Some get no symptoms at all and carry on having sex without knowing, therefore passing it on.

Treatment
There is a risk of reduced fertility, if you’re not treated. You’ll be warned off sex until you’ve got the all-clear.

If you have any of the symptoms of gonorrhoea, you should visit a sexual health clinic for a sexual health test. Gonorrhoea can be easily diagnosed by testing a sample of discharge picked up using a swab. In men, testing a sample of urine can also diagnose the condition.

Gonorrhoea is usually treated with a single antibiotic injection and a single antibiotic tablet. With effective treatment, most of your symptoms should improve within a few days.

It's usually recommended you attend a follow-up appointment a week or two after treatment so another test can be carried out to see if you're clear of infection.

You should avoid having sex until you've been told you no longer have the infection.

Previous successful treatment for gonorrhoea does not make you immune to catching it again.

Herpes

The facts
Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted infection (STI) passed on through vaginal, anal and oral sex. Genital herpes is very easy to pass on (contagious) from the first tingling or itching of a new outbreak (before any blisters appear) to when sores have fully healed.

You can catch it:

  • from skin-to-skin contact with the infected area – including vaginal, anal and oral sex
  • when there are no visible sores or blisters
  • if a cold sore touches your genitals
  • by transferring the infection on fingers from someone else to your genitals
  • by sharing sex toys with someone who has herpes

You cannot catch it:

  • from objects such as towels, cutlery or cups – the virus dies very quickly when away from your skin

Do you get cold sores? That’s the herpes simplex virus, type 1. You can get type 1 infections in the genital region though – so it’s best not to get friendly if your partner has a cold sore eruption. It’s also transmitted sexually, obviously.

Symptoms 
Painful cold sores/ulcerations around your nether regions. They flare up, and seem to disappear, but once you have the virus, you are never rid of it. That’s why, if you already have it, it’s important to be responsible during your flare-ups. Symptoms that are not necessarily always present include aching, gland swelling, tiredness and flu-like symptoms, itching/tingling around the genitals, and blisters that burst to form sores.

You should visit your GP or sexual health clinic if you have any of these symptoms:

  • small blisters that burst to leave red, open sores around your genitals, anus, thighs or buttocks
  • tingling, burning or itching around your genitals
  • pain when you pee
  • in women, vaginal discharge that's not usual for you

Go even if you haven't had sex for a long time, as blisters can take months or years to appear.

Treatment 
There is not a cure per-se. But there are some treatments to ease the symptoms.

If it is the first time you have had herpes:

You may be prescribed:

  • antiviral medicine to stop the symptoms getting worse – you need to start taking this within 5 days of the symptoms appearing
  • cream for the pain

If you have an 'outbreak' of herpes and it is not the first time:

Go to your GP or a sexual health clinic.

Antiviral medicine may help shorten an outbreak by 1 or 2 days, if you start taking it as soon as symptoms appear. But outbreaks usually settle by themselves, so you may not need treatment.

Recurrent outbreaks are usually milder than the first episode of genital herpes. Over time, outbreaks tend to happen less often and be less severe. Some people never have outbreaks.

There are some things you can do to calm the symptoms at home (this is advice from the NHS):

  • keep the area clean using plain or salt water to prevent blisters becoming infected
  • apply an ice pack wrapped in a flannel to soothe pain
  • apply petroleum jelly (such as Vaseline) or painkilling cream (such as 5% lidocaine) to reduce pain when you pee
  • wash your hands before and after applying cream or jelly
  • pee while pouring water over your genitals to ease the pain
Std results

Syphilis

The facts 
The bacterium's called treponema pallidum. Remember “the pox” from history textbooks? This is it. It’s transmitted through close contact. That’s oral/anal/vaginal sex, or even touching the sores of someone who’s infected. Mother-child transmission is also wholly possible. 

It's important to get tested and treated as soon as possible if you think you might have syphilis, as it can cause serious problems if it's left untreated.

It can usually be cured with a short course of antibiotics.

Symptoms
There are four stages to this nasty STI and symptoms can take two to six weeks to appear:

  • Primary: small painless sores appear where the bacteria got in [so that’d be the genital area, for example. Sometimes they’re not even visible; they’re on the inside.
  • Secondary: a blotchy red skin rash can appear. It’s exceedingly infectious, can have brown sores and affect the palms of your hands and soles of your feet. You could also get white patches in your mouth. That, and there’s headaches, fever, gland swelling, wart-like growths, hair-loss… This can last about a year.
  • Latent: no symptoms.
  • Tertiary/Late: if the first bits didn’t put you off, try this. It can damage your brain, joints, bones, eyes, heart or nerves, leaving your paralysed, mentally ill, blind, and with heart disease. Oh yeah, and it can kill you.

Treatment:
The test for syphilis usually involves a blood test and removing a sample of fluid from any sores using a swab (similar to a cotton bud). This, like others, can be treated effectively with some antibiotics. As with other STIs, let partners know of your infection.

Condoms

HIV

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), as you’re well aware, doesn’t go away. Gradually, it will wear you down to a point at which your immune system gives way to AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). You’ve probably heard the spiel a million times.

Still, many of us are still members of the 'promiscuous 10%'. The group that operate the 'don’t ask, don’t test, don’t tell' policy.

The facts
HIV spreads in many ways, needle-sharing, mother-child etc. Here, let’s concentrate on unprotected sex. We’re all at risk, gay or hetero. Gay men are at greater risk; simply because the sexual method is more likely to give way to tearing of tissue, and therefore entry to the bloodstream. But heterosexual people are far from immune and their infection numbers are rising alarmingly.

Symptoms 
Some don’t present any symptoms but most (80%) experience a short, flu-like illness that occurs 2-6 weeks after infection. Basically, it’s just your immune system beginning to suffer.

The most common symptoms are:

  • raised temperature (fever)
  • sore throat
  • body rash

Other symptoms can include:

  • tiredness
  • joint pain
  • muscle pain
  • swollen glands

But having these symptoms doesn't necessarily mean you have the HIV virus. Remember, they're commonly caused by conditions other than HIV.

Once compromised, you’re more susceptible to “opportunistic” infections that will start to make you feel ill. Cancers are also more likely to appear once HIV has weakened your immune system. It is when these secondary illnesses have taken hold, that AIDS is thought to have developed.

Treatment

If you think you've been exposed to the virus, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) medication may stop you becoming infected.

PEP must be started within 72 hours of coming into contact with the virus for it to be effective. It's only recommended following higher risk exposure, particularly where the sexual partner is known to be positive.

PEP involves taking HIV treatment every day for 1 month. It may cause some side effects.

You should be able to get PEP from:

  • sexual health clinics or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics
  • hospitals – usually accident and emergency (A&E) departments


Any treatment can, at best, slow the HIV progression. The best treatment by far is prevention and awareness. Tests are done through blood tests for HIV antibodies. If you're diagnosed with HIV, you'll have regular blood tests to monitor the progress of the HIV infection before starting treatment. HIV is treated with antiretroviral medications, which work by stopping the virus replicating in the body. This allows the immune system to repair itself and prevent further damage.

Pubic lice (or 'crabs')

Pubic lice, scabies, itch mites, crabs, whatever you want to call them, these things are nasty.

The facts
While scabies and pubic lice are slightly different, their cause is pretty much the same; sex with infected people/transmission through bedlinen/clothes/towels. Pubic lice (Phthirus pubis) are tiny parasitic insects that live on coarse human body hair, such as pubic hair.

Symptoms
Itching, mainly. They burrow in the hairy regions under your skin, and bite the living daylights out of you. They love the groin area. They lay eggs under the skin, and they take about six to eight days to hatch. Sometimes you can see the little brown insects, or in the case of scabies, a rash. You might see black powder in your underwear or blue small spots of blood on your skin.

Treatment
All clothes/linen should be washed accordingly, as well as ointment being obtained from the docs to apply. No close contact until the all-clear. To prevent re-infestation, anyone you've been up close and personal with in past three months, should also be treated, even if they don't have symptoms. 

The first treatment application will probably kill the lice, but the eggs may not have been destroyed. This means more lice could hatch and the cycle will start again.

Reapplying the treatment after three or seven days will ensure that any lice are killed before they're old enough to lay more eggs.

Hepatitis

Hepatitis is the term used to describe inflammation of the liver. It's usually the result of a viral infection or liver damage caused by drinking alcohol. We are obviously focusing on viral infections that are transmitted through unprotected sex.

The facts

There are three forms; A, B and C. Some types will pass without any serious problems, while others can be long-lasting and cause damage to the liver including cancer. 

Hepatitis A -  It's usually caught by consuming food and drink contaminated with the poo of an infected person and is most common in countries where sanitation is poor.

Hepatitis B - It's spread in the blood of an infected person. Most adults infected with hepatitis B are able to fight off the virus and fully recover from the infection within a couple of months.

Hepatitis C - It's the most common type of viral hepatitis in the UK. It's usually spread through blood-to-blood contact with an infected person.

Symptoms

  • muscle and joint pain
  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • feeling and being sick
  • feeling unusually tired all the time
  • a general sense of feeling unwell
  • loss of appetite
  • tummy pain
  • dark urine
  • pale, grey-coloured poo
  • itchy skin
  • skin and eyes turning yellow (jaundice)

All of the above are preventable by practising safe sex every time. If you do have unprotected sex, the best thing to do would be to head to a sexual health clinic ASAP for a check-up - here's some tips for visiting for the first time.

If you're sexually active, it's advised you get tested at least once a year, and every time you have a new sexual partner. Take control, don’t put if off, and remember that condoms are the best way to protect against STIs. For information on STIs, chlamydia testing, contraception and all information about sexual health, visit the site. 

Do you have any further questions about STI's? Visit these sites below for expert advice

https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/sexual-health/

https://sexwise.fpa.org.uk/

https://www.brook.org.uk/your-life/category/stis