What is an STI?
An STI (or STD as it is also known) is a sexually transmitted infection. People who have an STI can infect someone who does not have one through sexual contact, or sometimes through skin-to-skin contact. STIs can be transmitted through unprotected oral, anal and vaginal sex. There are two types of STIs that you can get: bacterial or viral. Bacterial STIs can be treated with a dose of antibiotics, and viral STIs cannot be treated but simply managed as they are a life-long infection.
- Chlamydia – This STI infects a woman’s cervix and the urethra in both men and women. If symptoms show up at all (usually 1-3 weeks after infection), you would experience an unusual discharge, genital itching or burning, and possible pain during urination. It can also be detected in the throat and chest from oral sex. If untreated, chlamydia can lead to infertility, cervical infections or pelvic inflammatory disease.
- Gonorrhoea (The clap) – Most people with this STI do not show symptoms at all, but if they do they will experience painful urination and an abnormal discharge. Leaving it untreated can lead to infertility, arthritis, heart problems and pelvic inflammatory disease. It can also occur in the throat from oral sex and anus from anal sex.
- Syphilis – This is a nasty STI and will give you red sores on your mouth, genitals or skin, as well as headaches, a fever and/ or a rash. If you touch someone with syphilis while they have ‘active’ or open sores, you may contract the infection. Symptoms usually take between 3 weeks to 8 months to show once you have been infected. Untreated, this nasty infection can lead to organ failure and therefore death, as well as put you at much higher risk of contracting HIV.
- Genital Warts / Human Papillomavirus (HPV) – There are over 100 strains of this STI, and some strains can lead to cancer. People with this STI will get warts on their genitals or anus from having unprotected sex with someone who has active warts. It usually takes 3 weeks to 8 months for the warts to show, and is highly contagious. Treatment includes a doctor freezing or burning them off, surgically lasering them or cutting them out, and ointments or creams. In about 25% of cases, warts come back, but the virus will always remain in your system even if warts are not present. Left untreated, some strains can lead cervical, penile, anal or rectal cancers. Because warts affect the skin (not just a man’s penis or woman’s vagina), you can acquire the virus even if you use a condom, so refrain from sexual contact while someone has warts that you cannot be protected from. HPV can still be transmitted even if warts are not present, and when a woman goes to her gynaecologist for a pap smear, they are testing for abnormal cells (HPV). Teenagers and women under 25 can now be vaccinated against HPV (Cervarix or Gardasil) so get yourself or your kids vaccinated if you fit this description.
- Hepatitis B – Hepatitis affects the liver, and if untreated can lead to liver failure. It can be contracted through unprotected sexual contact, sharing needles, or getting a tattoo/ piercing with unsterilised tools. Many people infected with Hep B don’t have symptoms, but they do include flu-like symptoms such as a fever, sore muscles, feeling tired, loss of appetite, or stomach bug-like symptoms. If untreated, you would also start to display symptoms of liver disease, such as very dark urine and yellowish skin and eyes. This is one STI that you can be vaccinated for.
- Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) I & II – This is a very sneaky STI (and a very easy to pass on), and the most tell-tale signs are genital/oral ulcers or sores. HSV I causes oral ulcers (cold sores), many people contract this virus throughout their life (not simply from sexual contact) and it is in fact quite common. If you have a cold sore and perform unprotected oral sex, you can transmit the sores to your partner’s genitals. HSV II is more common on the genitals but again can be transmitted to the mouth via oral sex. Transmission occurs from contact with active ulcers, and the first outbreak is often the most contagious and painful, however HSV can be transmitted through ‘asymptomatic shedding’, which means that even if you don’t have symptoms or ulcers you may still transmit the virus to your partner. The scary thing about HSV is that it can be dormant in your system for days, months or even years. Get tested regularly if you are having sex with multiple partners or before you embark on a new relationship.
- HIV (and AIDS) – as most of us South Africans known (it is what we receive the most sex ed about), HIV is a life-long virus, mostly acquired through unprotected sex. It is transmitted through bodily fluids like blood and semen (not skin to skin contact, sharing cutlery, hugging etc.), and attacks your immune system. HIV and AIDS are not the same thing, and HIV only becomes AIDS if your CD4 count (that is your white blood cells) drops below a certain number. You may be infected and have no symptoms for a very long time, but usually a person will suffer from flu-like symptoms shortly after contracting the virus.
What symptoms would I get if I had an STI?
Most STIs do not have symptoms (asymptomatic), but common symptoms include warts, ulcers, a strange discharge, an unusual smell from the genitals, rashes or flu-like symptoms. Be sure to get tested regularly.
Can I give an STI to my partner?
Absolutely, especially if you have what is called an ‘active outbreak’. You are at your most contagious with certain STIs when you have open sores or warts, such as with herpes, but exchanging bodily fluid can lead to infection so that is why using condoms is so important if you don’t know your status. If your partner has an STI and has an outbreak, you should refrain from all sexual contact until the outbreak has cleared. Washing your hands during this time is especially important so as not to spread the virus. Just remember – always use condoms if you do not know someone’s STI status (and I don’t just mean HIV here).
Can my STI be treated?
Bacterial STIs – Bacterial STIs can be treated through a dose of antibiotics or penicillin. This has to be prescribed by a doctor if you receive a positive result on your blood tests.
Viral STIs – Viral STIs cannot be treated, and can only be managed. It is a life-long infection, and it is important to seek medical assistance in knowing how to treat symptoms and keep the virus as inactive as possible.
Where can I get tested for an STI?
You can get tested at any reputable sexual health clinic or at your doctors through having a blood test. If you have no symptoms and simply want to be responsible by getting tested, your GP can do blood tests for you. If you have an outbreak or notice unusual symptoms, seek medical care immediately, either from your GP, Gynaecologist or Urologist, and refrain from all sexual contact until you know your status and the outbreak has cleared up. With some of the highest HIV rates in the world, South Africans should be testing regularly for HIV, but we often neglect to test for STIs. STIs put you at a much higher risk of contracting HIV, so be responsible and test for everything in one go!
Listen to show I did on Yfm recently about STIs and contraception. I will be posting about contraception soon…