Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) are infections contracted primarily through unprotected sexual contact. This doesn’t mean you can only get an STI (also called sexually transmitted diseases, or venereal diseases) from having sex; depending on the infection, STIs can also be transmitted through sharing needles, blood transfusions, or breastfeeding. Some STIs can be contracted with obvious symptoms, and others can be an unwanted surprise – so it’s important to understand what they are and what to do if you have one, so you can do the right thing by yourself and by your partner.
Common STIs you’d have heard of include:
Caused by a bacterial infection, chlamydia is the most common STI affecting young people in Australia (AIHW 2020).
Rates of infection among indigenous young people are almost 3 times that of non-Indigenous Australians, and across the board incidence is rising over the last 5 years (Kirby Institute 2019). While there are often no symptoms of infection, especially for men, some people might notice things like burning or pain while urinating, soreness and irritation around the groin, pain during sex, or discharges from the penis or vagina (AIHW 2020).
Tests for chlamydia are quick and easy, involving a urine test vaginal swab for women. After a positive test, your doctor will talk to you about treatment and also speak to you about contact tracing (letting anyone you may have exposed know that they should get tested too). This is something you can either do yourself or with the help of a heath professional.
Treatment is simple – you’ll be prescribed a course of antibiotics to finish, and told to refrain from drinking or continuing to have unsafe sex during the course (ASHM 2020). If left untreated chlamydia can result in serious issues, including infertility or ectopic pregnancy.
Herpes is caused by Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) and comes in two main types; HSV1, which is more common on the mouth as cold sores, and HSV2 on the genitals, although both types can cause sores and blisters on either area (). Typically the first time you get genital sores or blisters is the worst (), and you might also feel like you’ve got a mild flu.
While sores are common, you can still pass herpes on to other people though oral sex or other skin to skin contact without any visible blisters – and there’s currently no cure or vaccine. Management usually involves being prescribed anti-viral drugs and paracetamol to reduce symptoms (ASHM 2020).
Like with many other viruses, HSV stays in the nerves of the infected site and can reappear throughout your life, although recurrences are typically mild and usually don’t need treatment (ASHM 2020).
HPV (Human papillomavirus)
HPV is a common virus passed via skin to skin or sexual contact.
While most people with the virus don’t show symptoms, HPV is most commonly associated with genital or mouth warts. Both males and females are susceptible, but women are more likely to have complications. Nearly all cervical cancer is caused by HPV, however HPV can lead to oral, rectal, or throat cancer. Infections are best diagnosed through physical exam and illness history in males as well as a pelvic examination or a Pap test of the cervix for HPV detection.
In terms of prevention, condoms might not fully protect you as they don’t cover all of the area which might be infectious. The HPV vaccine is effective; HPV has been a targeted infection in Australia, with a 90% drop in genital warts among young Australians since the National HPV Vaccination Program began in 2007 (Kirby 2018).
There’s no cure for HPV and usual treatment involves clearance by the immune system; managing symptoms is important though to minimise the risk of transmission to others. Treatment involves wart removal through either topical treatment, freezing/burning, or surgical excision for complicated cases.
Gonorrhoea, or “the clap”, is a common bacterial STI transmitted through unprotected sex with an infected person.
Symptoms range among people, but most men get a yellow discharge and burning sensation within a week of getting infected. Many women don’t feel any symptoms at all. A major complication of gonorrhoea is infertility in both men and women, so early treatment is very important (AIHW 2018). Like with some other STIs, doctors will test for gonorrhoea using a urine test and swab – and will talk to you about contact tracing should the test come back positive (ASHM 2020).
Gonorrhoea is treated with a simple course of antibiotics.
You’d also have heard of HIV.
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a serious but manageable infection spread through the blood, sexual fluid or breast milk of an infected person. While most commonly transmitted via unprotected sex, contaminated needles or syringes can also be a source of infection – however things like mosquito bites, kissing, sharing cups or shaking hands are not unsafe ().
Early symptoms of HIV infection are usually very mild; some people feel a mild flu or sore throat, or develop a rash. After initial illness people often don’t show any symptoms for years. Eventually the virus takes a huge toll on the immune system, if untreated, and develops into AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).
Despite being generally preventable through things like practicing safe sex and using sterile syringes, there are still groups at risk. Australians at highest risk of getting HIV include men who have sex with men, people who are exposed to unsterilised equipment during tattoos or while injecting drugs, or people who have sex with people from countries or communities with higher rates of HIV (AIHW 2020).
Effective treatment has been developed to help people who have HIV to live a full and satisfying life. Evidence shows that the earlier people begin non-invasive antiretroviral treatment the better their health outcomes, which underlines how important screening blood tests are (AFAO 2020).
Hola Meds provides a secure and confidential online consultation with a trained GP to talk you through your symptoms and your treatment options from the comfort of your home – and also offers discrete home delivery from your pharmacy to get your back to your usual self as soon as possible.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2020. Australia’s health 2020 data insights. Australia’s health series no. 17. Cat. no. AUS 231. Canberra: AIHW.
Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO) 2020. HIV in Australia 2020. [https://www.afao.org.au/Australia]
Australasian Society for HIV Medicine (ASHM) 2020. Australian STI Management Guidelines for use in Primary Care. [sti.guidelines.org.au/sexually-transmissible-infections]
Kirby Institute. HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections in Australia: annual surveillance report 2018. Sydney: Kirby Institute, UNSW Medicine Sydney; 2018.
Kirby Institute. National update on HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections in Australia 2009-2018. Sydney: Kirby Institute, UNSW Medicine Sydney; 2019.