Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), also known as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), are very common. Most people will have at least one in their lifetime. STIs can easily pass from one person to another through vaginal, oral, and anal sex and occasionally through heavy petting. It is possible to have an STI without knowing it as they do not always cause symptoms or may only cause mild symptoms.
Although most STIs can be treated or cured with medicines, some STIs can pose serious health risks, especially when left untreated. Anyone who is sexually active should adopt safer sex practices to prevent infection. This includes having an open discussion with sex partners, having regular tests for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and using a condom for protection.
HPV (Human Papillomavirus)
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI). Although most types of HPV have no symptoms and cause no harm, it can cause genital warts or cancer of the cervix, penis, mouth, or throat. There are more than 100 types of human papillomavirus (HPV). More than 40 types of HPV can be spread sexually through vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
HPV does not usually cause symptoms or problems; most people with it do not realise they are infected. The virus can sometimes cause genital warts, painless growths or lumps around your vagina, penis or anus.
HPV testing is part of cervical screening. HPV is the leading cause of abnormal pap smears in over 90% of cases. A pap smear is generally performed on women over 21. During the procedure, your healthcare practitioner will swab some cells from your cervix and send them to the laboratory to determine if they are normal or abnormal. Women who test positive for HPV will be closely monitored with regular testing.
It is recommended that young women and men aged 11 to 26 get vaccinated for HPV. 3 available vaccines protect against cancer, with two protecting against genital warts, vaginal and anal cancer.
Chlamydia is among the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the UK. It is passed on through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex or contact with infected genital fluids (semen or vaginal fluid). Chlamydia is most common in sexually active teenagers and young adults.
Although chlamydia does not usually cause symptoms, it can be serious if not treated early on. If left untreated, chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), an infection of the fallopian tubes, uterus, and cervix. It can also cause ectopic pregnancy and infertility and can be passed by a pregnant woman to her baby.
Most people with chlamydia do not notice any symptoms, but if they do, they usually include:
- Painful urination
- Unusual discharge from the vagina, penis or anus
- Pain in the abdomen, bleeding after sex and bleeding between periods
Testing for chlamydia includes either a urine test or a swab test, with a sample taken from your cervix, vagina, throat, or anus. Chlamydia is normally treated with a short course of antibiotics.
Gonorrhea, previously commonly known as ‘the clap’, is a common bacterial STI often caught with chlamydia. If left untreated, gonorrhoea can cause very serious health problems, including pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
Like chlamydia, gonorrhoea symptoms include unusual discharge from the vagina or penis or painful urination. Only about 20% of women get symptoms.
Usually, your healthcare provider will use a urine sample to diagnose gonorrhoea. However, if you had oral or anal sex, they may use swabs to collect samples from your throat or rectum.
Both HSV-1 and HSV-2 strains can cause genital herpes, although HSV-2 more commonly causes it. The Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) is very common, with HSV-1 affecting approximately 70% and HSV-2 affecting 10% of the population in the UK.
It is very easy to catch herpes from skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. Although you are most contagious when you have blisters, you can still pass on the virus if you do not have blisters.
The main symptom of herpes is painful blisters around the penis, vagina, or anus. You can also get blisters inside your vagina or anus. There is no cure for herpes. There is, however, effective antiviral medicine that can manage the symptoms.
You can get syphilis by direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. There are four stages of syphilis (primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary). Each stage has different signs and symptoms.
The Four Stages Of Syphilis
- In the primary stage, the main symptom is a sore that may appear to be a harmless bump. Sores are usually firm, round, painless, and heal after 3 to 6 weeks.
- The secondary stage starts with a rash on your body, followed by sores in your mouth, vagina, or anus.
- Symptoms usually disappear in the third (latent) stage. Without treatment, you can continue to have syphilis in your body for years or the rest of your life.
- Only about 15% of people with untreated syphilis enter the final stage. Tertiary syphilis is very serious and usually occurs 10–30 years after your initial infection. It can affect the heart, blood vessels, brain, and nervous system.
Testing And Treatment For Syphilis
If you have symptoms of syphilis, a doctor or nurse will check your penis, vagina, and anus for syphilis sores. They will also check the rest of your body for other signs of syphilis, such as a rash or sores. They may use a swab to collect a fluid sample from any sores or take a blood sample. Syphilis is treated with antibiotics, which you may have as a course of injections, tablets or capsules.
Other Common STI Infections
Some diseases, not typical STIs, such as scabies, can also be spread through skin-on-skin contact. Some diseases, such as hepatitis, can be spread through sex or other means.
- Hepatitis - The Hepatitis B virus is present in semen, body fluids, and blood that are shared during unprotected sex. It is the leading cause of liver cancer and the most common reason for liver transplants. Hepatitis B is a vaccine-preventable disease.
- Trichomoniasis - Trichomoniasis is caused by a tiny parasite transmitted by sexual contact. Symptoms include itching, burning, sore genitals and a smelly (fish) discharge. Trichomoniasis is treated with antibiotics.
- HIV/AIDS - HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. It is passed through body fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. Symptoms of HIV include symptoms like the flu, muscle aches, fatigue, or a slight fever. There is no cure for HIV, but powerful antiviral drugs can help people with HIV live long lives.
An Overview Of STIs in Women
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are highly prevalent and can easily be transmitted through various sexual activities. While some STIs may not exhibit symptoms or only cause mild discomfort, others can lead to severe health complications if left untreated.
It is crucial for sexually active individuals to practice safe sex by openly discussing sexual health with partners, undergoing regular STI testing, and consistently using condoms. HPV, chlamydia, gonorrhoea, herpes, syphilis, and other common STIs such as hepatitis, trichomoniasis, and HIV/AIDS require awareness, testing, and appropriate treatment.
Vaccination against HPV is recommended for young individuals, and early detection and treatment of STIs can significantly reduce the risk of long-term health issues. It is important to prioritise sexual health and take proactive measures to prevent and manage STIs in order to maintain overall well-being.