There are a lot of myths surrounding sexually transmissible infections (STIs), from ‘all STIs show physical symptoms’ to ‘you only get STIs through intercourse’. Many are untrue. Basically, if you’re sexually active (having vaginal, oral or anal sex) and haven’t used protection (yes, even just that one time), you may have been exposed to an STI.
Read our no-nonsense guide to the most common STIs below and find out what’s fact and what’s fiction.
What’s an STI?
An STI is a sexually transmitted infection. That means it’s an infection that can be passed from one person to another during sex. This includes anything that might involve any skin-to-skin genital contact or exchange of bodily fluids.
The biggest myth surrounding STIs is that you can tell if a potential partner has one. It’s really important for everyone to realise that you can have an STI without any symptoms, so they themselves might not realise they have an STI.
Some of the most common STIs include:
Chlamydia is the most common STI amongst young Australians. It’s a bacterial infection that’s passed on by having unprotected sex (vaginal, oral or anal) or sharing sex toys with someone that has it.
Chlamydia often has no symptoms, which means most people don’t know they have it – or that they’re passing it on. If symptoms do show they may include irregular vaginal bleeding, pain when peeing or after sex, an unusual discharge from the genitals or anus, or pain in the lower abdomen. A test will tell you if you have chlamydia and involves a swab or urine test for women and a urine test for men.
If left undetected and untreated, chlamydia may cause fertility problems and chronic pain in both men and women. Women can develop pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) as well. Chlamydia can be cured with antibiotics and prevented with the use of condoms for vaginal and anal sex, and condoms or dams for oral sex.
Find out more on chlamydia.
Like chlamydia, gonorrhoea symptoms are not always obvious but can include: pain or discomfort when peeing or during sex; discharge from the vagina, anus or penis; or pelvic pain in women.
Gonorrhoea is a bacterial infection that is passed on by having unprotected sex. It can affect the reproductive organs, as well as the throat, mouth, eyes and urethra (your urine passage).
You can be tested for gonorrhea – this involves a urine test for men and a swab or urine test for women – with treatment involving an injection of antibiotics.
More information on gonorrhoea here.
Genital herpes is a viral STI that is spread through skin-to-skin contact, including sex. It’s more common than most people think, with approximately one in eight sexually active Australians having the virus.
It’s caused by the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), of which, there are two types: HSV1, which generally appear as cold cores on the mouth and lips, and HSV2, which tend to occur on the genitals. However, each type can appear on both areas.
Symptoms of genital herpes can include painful blisters; tingling around the genitals and anus; feeling like you have the flu; and pain when peeing. A doctor can take a swab test from a blister to confirm if you have it.
While there’s no cure for genital herpes, the symptoms usually only last about a week. Genital herpes can recur, but the first episode is usually the worst. Anti-viral medication can reduce the recurrences. Pain relief medication and salt baths can also help alleviate pain.
Use protection (condoms and dams) and avoid sexual activity when blisters appear, to help prevent infecting your sexual partners.
See our herpes page for more information.
A common viral STI caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), genital warts are passed on through skin-to-skin contact, including sex. Of the over 100 types of HPV, some 40 types affect the genital area.
Symptoms include small warts that may be itchy, appearing in and on the genitals and the throat and mouth. If you think you have genital warts, visit your GP, or a Family Planning or sexual health clinic. They may offer treatment options including a cream for external warts or removing them using freezing, burning or laser treatment. While this may remove the warts themselves, the virus can stay in your body for much longer and potentially return.
Using condoms and dams can prevent infection. Gardasil® is a vaccination to protect against HPV6 and HPV11, the two types of the virus responsible for 90% of warts.
More information on genital warts here.
Genital warts and herpes are both viral infections and you can have them without any symptoms. If you get a flare up it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve been recently infected. It might be something you’ve had or carried for some time but you just didn’t have any symptoms before.
Prevention is best when it comes to STIs. Using protection, like condoms and dams, is the best approach. Whether you’ve had unprotected sex, had a partner with an STI, had condoms break on you in the past, or have STI symptoms – whatever the reason, if you’ve ever been sexually active you should have a sexual health check-up at least once a year. You can get a test from your GP or at a Family Planning or sexual health clinic – find your closest one here.