Knowing how to look after your body can lead to a healthier, safer, and more pleasurable sex life. Taking care of your own sexual health and practicing safer sex can protect you from STIs, including HIV.
Sexually-transmitted infections (STIs)
A sexually-transmitted infection (STI) is usually a bacterial or viral infection predominantly spread through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Some STIs can also be spread via blood or other bodily fluids. Most can be prevented by using condoms.
There are over 30 known STIs including these most common ones:
Anyone can get an STI regardless of how many times they have had sex or how many partners they have had. No one should feel ashamed about getting or having an STI and it is worth noting that most are treatable and manageable. In some cases, genital infections aren’t an STI at all. If you’re unsure it’s always important to see your healthcare provider.
There are common symptoms associated with STIs, for example:
- Urethral discharge from the penis could possibly be gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, or mycoplasma genitalium
- Genital or anorectal ulcers could possibly be syphilis, genital herpes, lymphogranuloma venereum (LGV), chancroid, or donovanosis
- Abnormal vaginal discharge could possibly be cervical infections of gonorrhea, chlamydia, mycoplasma genitalium or vaginal infections of trichomoniasis, candida, bacterial vaginosis
- Lower abdominal pain among women could possibly be gonorrhea, chlamydia, mycoplasma genitalium, or anaerobic bacteria
- Anorectal discharge could possibly be gonorrhea, chlamydia, or lymphogranuloma venereum (LGV)
It’s also possible to have an STI without obvious symptoms. It is important to be mindful of signs and to seek professional advice if you think you may be at risk of an STI or develop symptoms.
You should visit a sexual healthcare provider if you or a sexual partner have symptoms of an STI, or you’re concerned about STIs after having sex without a condom.
A healthcare provider will ask you questions about your sex life, may ask to examine your genitals or anus, and tell you what tests you might need. Some clinics may offer self-testing or home testing kits. We know it can be hard, but if your test is positive for an STI it is important to inform any recent sexual partners so that they can also get tested and treated if needed.
If left untreated, some STIs can carry serious consequences that go beyond the initial infection. For example, STIs such as syphilis and herpes can increase the risk of contracting HIV and gonorrhea, and chlamydia may lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility.
Some STIs such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis can be treated and cured effectively with a course of antibiotics prescribed by your healthcare provider. Like any antibiotics, it is important to complete the full course of treatment, even if symptoms clear. HIV and herpes simplex virus (HSV) are both preventable and treatable, but not curable. Treatment for HIV is a combination of antiretrovirals that can help stop the virus multiplying and by supporting the immune system to have an opportunity to repair itself.
Preventing STIs & HIV
There are several ways to reduce the risk of infection and protect yourself and your partner from STIs. The vagina, cervix, and uterus can be protected from most STIs by using a condom during sex. When used correctly and consistently, condoms are one of the most effective methods of protection against STIs, HIV, and unintended pregnancies. Vaccines are also available for human papilloma virus (HPV), hepatitis A, and hepatitis B if not already vaccinated when younger.
PEP is an anti-HIV medication which can help reduce the risk of HIV after possible exposure. It must be taken within 72 hours of possible exposure and is a 28-day course of medication. It is not guaranteed to prevent HIV and is only recommended in emergency situations after high-risk of exposure.
There is also a medicine called PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) for people who do not have HIV. PrEP is taken before sex and can reduce the risk of HIV transmission when it is taken correctly. PrEP can be used as a way to reduce your risk of HIV if you are HIV negative and don’t always use condoms.
It is important to remember that PrEP will not protect you from other STIs, and you should wear a condom every time you have sex (whether it is anal, oral or vaginal).
You can also talk to your partner about STIs, sexual health, and contraception before engaging in sexual activity. You may want to get tested before having sex – some STIs have no obvious symptoms so it is safer to get tested.
If you are sexually active it is important to keep yourself safe and healthy, and also protect the health of others. This can be through using protection (condoms) during sex, regular testing (every three to six months), seeking healthcare if you recognize any symptoms, and ensuring you complete the full course of treatment should you test positive for an STI.
For those changing partners often, it's a good idea to get tested before each new partner or every three to six months. Being aware of the different types of STIs and how they can be passed on, their symptoms, and how to be tested all help maintain your own, as well as others’, health and wellbeing.