Sexually transmitted infections - The lowdown

STI's - The lowdown

By Dr Rob Hicks

‘VD, STD or STI (sexually transmitted disease / infection), even ‘a dose of something’ – whatever you call it there’s a lot of it about. In 2009 there were 482,696 new STI diagnoses in the UK, continuing the steady upward trend. On the increase are chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes, and showing a very small, but welcome, decrease, are genital warts and syphilis. 

STIs can affect any age group. In fact, there’s a growing tendency for the middle-aged and older to become infected. New relationships after divorce or bereavement offer some explanation for this, these age groups also often wrongly believe their age makes them immune to STIs and that once through the menopause any STI risk is left behind along with that of falling pregnant.

Symptoms of STI's

STIs don’t always cause symptoms so someone can be infected, and potentially pass that infection on, without realising it.
Chlamydia is the most commonly diagnosed STI, and around 50% of men and 70-80% of women with it will not have symptoms. When symptoms do occur, women may experience: pain when passing urine, a change in vaginal discharge, lower abdominal pain, pain during sex, bleeding during/after sex or in-between periods that may be heavier than usual. Men may experience pain in the testicles or when passing urine, and a discharge from the penis.
It’s a similar story for gonorrhea, ‘the clap’. Around one in ten men and up to 50% of women don’t get symptoms. When symptoms do occur they are similar to those caused by chlamydia.
At least herpes infection offers an indication, the painful sores making it clear something’s not right. Genital warts too may make it obvious, with their flat, smooth small bumps or cauliflower-like lumps – but these may be assumed by the patient to be ‘just part of me’. Syphilis causes a painless sore or ulcer but this disappears after around six weeks, misleading people that the problem has gone away, when in fact the infection has moved into the next stage.
Even though the stigma around STIs is thankfully decreasing, the myths about them persist so let’s dispel the common ones. 
“You can’t catch anything when you’re having sex for the first time” – myth. Many people find their first sexual experience is tainted by contracting an STI.
“He/she is not that kind of person” – myth. You can’t tell just by looking at someone whether or not they have an STI. They are having sex with you, so they may well have had sex with someone else.
“There isn’t a condom big enough or comfortable enough for me” – myth. There’s a wide range of condoms and usually something to suit every one.

Now here are some facts. 

  • If you have had sex with a stranger or someone whose sexual history you are not 100% sure about, you may have caught something – it’s that simple. 
  • You don’t need to have symptoms to justify a check-up with your GP or at the local GUM (genito-urinary medicine) clinic. 
  • Practising safer sex with condoms protects against these infections and the hassle and risks they bring. 
  • Sex is fun and good for your physical and emotional health – when it’s done well, and of course, safely. 
  • STIs can be caught though vaginal, anal and oral sex.
  • The most common STIs in the UK are chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea.
  • In 2009 there were 482,696 new STI diagnoses in the UK.
  • You can be tested for many STIs very quickly at GUM clinics and other sexual health centres, and for some infections home tests and even postal tests are available.
  • Many STIs can go undetected, the only way to be sure is to get tested if you have had sex with someone you are not 100% sure is not infected.
  • Although some spermicides offer some protection against STIs, the only form of contraception that is recommended to prevent  infection is the condom.
  • One in four people will have an STI at some point during their life.
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