Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections you can pick up and pass on during sex, and can be caused by one of three things:
Infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis are usually easily cured with antibiotics.
These include HIV, herpes, genital warts and hepatitis. Viruses are harder to treat, but with time your body can get rid of some viruses on its own. Viruses such as HIV cannot be cured though, and need to be managed with medication. You can be vaccinated against hepatitis A and B.
Pubic lice and scabies can be caught without having sex, from bedding and towels – but this isn’t common.
Some STIs can cause symptoms within a few days, others may not show for days, weeks or months. Unfortunately not all STIs have symptoms at all, or if you do have them you might mistake them for something else.
Whether you have symptoms or not, a regular sexual health check-up will detect any infections. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed to go to a clinic, as staff have seen everything before and will treat you with respect and without judgement.
How can I stay safer?
You can lower your risk by using condoms and Femidoms. They don’t take away all the risk however, as they may not cover the part of the body where the STI is. Also, some STIs are spread during types of sex where people are not as likely to use condoms or Femidoms, for example oral sex, although you can use dental dams for protection. Remember, other contraception just protects against pregnancy, and offers no defense against STIs.
You can still get an STI if you have very few sexual partners – but the more sexual partners you have, the more likely you are to have sex with someone with an infection.
Chlamydia and gonorrhoea
Chlamydia and gonorrhoea are two of the most common STIs among young people, but generally the easiest to treat. They are passed on during vaginal, oral or anal sex. They can also be spread by sharing sex toys when a new condom is not used for each person.
The infections are often symptom-free for women, but for men symptoms of gonorrhoea usually show in 10 days. Left untreated they can cause serious problems in both men and women, including infertility.
If there are any symptoms, they can include discharge, and pain when urinating or during sex.
Chlamydia or gonorrhoea in the throat is usually symptom-free.
Testing for these two infections is quick and painless, and they can be treated with a course of antibiotics. You’ll be advised not to have sex until treatment has finished or you could pass on the infection. If you were given a single dose of antibiotics you will be asked to wait for a week to have sex.
People you have had sex with also need to get checked – a clinic can contact them if you don’t want to.
You can get a test at a sexual health clinic, order one online at www.youngandfree.org.uk or from one of our outreach workers.
You can have an infection without knowing, so regular check-ups are a good idea, especially if you are starting a new relationship or you want to stop using condoms with your partner.
Myths and truths
Some people believe you can get an STI from a toilet seat. This is most definitely a myth!
What about if your partner’s a virgin?
Fine right? Well depending on how your partner defines being a virgin, it is possible for them to have contracted an STI. Your partner might not have had vaginal or anal sex, but may have had oral sex with someone (and still consider themselves a virgin), putting themselves at risk for an STI.
People assume all lubricants are fine to use with condoms, but oil-based lubricants (like baby oil or Vaseline®) can break down latex and allow STIs to pass through. You need to be using water based lube. Those on the c-card scheme will only ever find water based lube in their packs.
Final myth is that once you have had an STI and have been treated for it, you can’t catch it again. Unfortunately bacterial STIs can be caught multiple times. That’s why we always urge you to test regularly!