Do you know your STIs?
Sexually transmitted infections aren’t fun to think about, but it’s essential to know the facts. Here are a few of the most common STIs in Australia – and what you need to know.
It’s a natural part of most of our lives, but sexual intimacy comes with risks. Any form of sexual contact with someone who carries a sexually transmitted infection (STI) can put you at risk of getting it too. And because STIs are not always obvious – many people don’t even know that they’re infected – it’s always important to play it safe.
Sexually transmitted infections can be caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites, and they don’t always have symptoms. They can be spread by vaginal, anal or oral sex, and some can be passed on just through skin-to-skin contact.
The best way to protect yourself from STIs is to use condoms. But keep in mind this doesn’t give you 100% protection. If you notice any symptoms, you should see your doctor for an STI test. Even if you don’t have symptoms, it’s a good idea to have regular sexual health check-ups, especially if you have had unprotected sex, or before you have sex with a new partner.
In many cases, a standard sexual health screening will just involve a urine test – easy. Depending on your circumstances, your doctor may also suggest a blood test, or take a swab from the genitals or affected area.
Here’s a snapshot of a few common STIs to be aware of.
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One of the most common STIs in Australia, chlamydia is caused by bacteria and can infect the cervix, urethra, anus (or less commonly, the throat or eyes). The risk is highest amongst young people.
Symptoms: Most people with chlamydia don’t experience any symptoms at all, so they often don’t know they have it. However, some signs can include painful urination, unusual discharges, or bleeding between periods or after sex.
Testing: Usually just a urine test, but sometimes a swab from the affected area.
Treatment: Chlamydia can be quickly and effectively treated with antibiotics. Symptoms will usually start to ease after a few days of treatment.
Long term complications: If left untreated, chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can cause fertility problems.
Genital herpes affects as many as 1 in 8 sexually active Australian adults. It’s caused by the herpes simplex virus (type 1 or 2) – the same virus that causes cold sores – and can be spread either through sex or skin-to-skin contact.
Symptoms: Many people have no symptoms, but the virus can cause blisters and sores on and around the genital areas and buttocks. You may also experience itching or irritation of the skin, painful urination, or a general feeling of being unwell.
Testing: Herpes is best detected through a swab test on the affected area. This is not a routine part of a sexual health screen, so if you have symptoms it’s important to tell your doctor.
Treatment: Currently, there is no treatment that gets rid of the virus itself, but you can effectively manage symptoms with prescribed tablets.
Long term complications: Because you will still have the virus, you are likely to have repeat episodes of symptoms at some point.
Genital warts/HPV (Human Papilloma Virus)
There are over 100 types of HPV, and it’s thought that most sexually active people will be exposed to HPV infection in their lifetime. Some types of HPV can cause warts on the genital area, and these can be spread through direct skin-to-skin contact.
Symptoms: Most people infected with HPV don’t have any warts. Genital warts appear as small lumps on the genital or anal area, and are usually painless, but they can cause itching and irritation. It’s also possible to have warts inside the vagina or cervix.
Testing: Your doctor will diagnose genital warts by looking at them. This is not done as part of a routine sexual health screening.
Treatment: There is no cure for HPV itself, but for most people, the body’s immune system will clear it out over time. You can treat genital warts with special cream or paint prescribed by your doctor. Laser or freezing treatments are also available.
Long term complications: Certain types of HPV can cause changes to the cells inside the cervix, a small percentage of which may develop into cancer.
Known as ‘the clap’, gonorrhoea is a bacterial infection that is often spread through sex without a condom. It most commonly affects the urethra in men and the cervix in women, but can also affect the anus, eyes and throat.
Symptoms: Many people (especially women) don’t experience any symptoms. However, symptoms can include unusual discharges from the vagina, penis or anus, painful urination, pelvic pain and redness around the opening of the penis.
Testing: A urine test, or a swab of the affected area.
Treatment: Gonorrhoea can be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms usually clear up within 24 hours of treatment.
Long term complications: If left untreated, it can spread and lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can cause fertility problems.
MORE: Debunking STI myths
Less common (but serious) STIs to know
STIs like syphilis, hepatitis B and HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) are less common in Australia, but it’s important to be aware of them, as they can potentially be quite serious.
Depending on your level of risk, your doctor may suggest a blood test for some of these as part of your routine sexual health screening. Your risk is influenced by things like your age, your sexual practices and where you live.
Here are a few things you should know:
Syphilis. There are three stages of this bacterial infection, and symptoms vary at each – from genital sores to rashes, swelling of the glands and fever. If diagnosed early, it can be easily treated with penicillin or other antibiotics. However, if it’s left untreated it can develop into tertiary syphilis and potentially lead to serious problems, mainly in the brain and heart.
Hepatitis B. Sexual contact is one way this virus can spread. Hepatitis B affects the liver, and chronic infection can lead to some serious problems like cirrhosis or liver cancer. Often there are no noticeable symptoms of infection, but you may experience fever, tiredness, nausea, jaundice or joint pain. There is treatment available that can help manage the impact on your liver. A vaccination against hepatitis B is also available.
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). HIV damages the immune system. If left untreated, it can lead to serious infections and cancers over time, and ultimately Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). If you think you may have been exposed to HIV it’s essential to see your doctor as soon as possible. These days, there are effective treatments that can help you manage HIV well and prevent it from developing into AIDS.
MORE: 5 myths about HIV/AIDS