To help us all stay protected, Hailie Pentleton gives us a clear guide to STIs and how to prevent yourself from contracting them.
Sex education in Scottish schools is far from perfect. Whilst the Scottish government has published guidance for how these topics should be addressed in state schools, delivery is not compulsory. Faith schools, which teach one in five Scottish students, are allowed to follow their own guidance. If you, like me, attended one of those schools, it’s likely that you missed out on a lot of valuable discussion around your sexual health. The limited sexual health education mainly focused on reasons to abstain. I remember feeling nauseous from images of rice-krispy-resembling genital warts and swearing off sex on the spot. I didn’t become fully aware of sexually transmitted diseases, and just how common they were, until I was on my way out the school doors. To save you some googling, here is all I know now.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are mostly transmitted through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. You cannot catch them from toilet seats, no matter how dodgy the club. You are at risk of catching an STI regardless of your gender, sexual preference, or how experienced you may be. According to the World Health Organisation, “more than 1 million STIs are acquired every day worldwide.”
Let’s talk about a few of the most common STIs, and how they can affect you:
Perhaps the most common STI, chlamydia is a bacterial infection carried in semen and vaginal fluids. Many people with chlamydia can appear asymptomatic. In fact, 75% of people with vaginas, and around 50% of those with a penis present no symptoms whilst carrying the infection. This does not mean it is harmless. Chlamydia can cause significant pain and cause serious fertility issues. Symptoms can include unusual discharge and painful urination, burning and itching around the penis, abdominal pain during vaginal sex, and swollen testicles. Thankfully, chlamydia is easily treated with a round of oral antibiotics when caught early enough.
Gonorrhea, or “the clap” as it is more affectionately known, is transmitted in many of the same ways as chlamydia. Around 50% of those with a vagina are unlikely to notice symptoms. If left untreated, gonorrhea can cause infertility, regardless of your sex. For those who experience symptoms, these can include discoloured discharge (ie yellow or green), painful urination or a burning sensation when you pee, and bleeding between periods. When caught early enough, gonorrhea can be treated with antibiotics.
A common misconception is that you can only contract HIV if you are a gay or bisexual man. Whilst these groups are disproportionately affected by the virus, a third of people living with HIV in the UK are women. This virus attacks the body’s immune system, making it more difficult to fight off a variety of infections. It is passed on through blood, semen, and vaginal fluids, and is mostly transmitted as a result of vaginal or anal sex. It cannot be contracted through kissing. Around 80% of those who contract HIV will experience a flu-like illness for around two-to-four weeks after becoming infected. After this, many people with HIV can go without symptoms for years but will remain carriers and at risk of infecting others. Treatment is available and can help to reduce symptoms and the chances of passing it on. The majority of HIV carriers, when treated, will not develop AIDS.
Genital herpes is highly contagious and is spread through skin to skin contact with infected areas. It can cause itchy outbreaks and sores on and around your genitals, bum, and mouth. Genital herpes can be transmitted with or without the presence of symptoms. It can be treated but cannot be cured, meaning that the virus will remain in your body after an initial outbreak, and you are likely to experience less severe outbreaks throughout your life. Though it is uncomfortable, genital herpes is not dangerous.
These are but a few infections that can be transmitted through sexual activity. Whilst this list describes a variety of STI symptoms, it highlights that many can go unnoticed. This is one of the most important reasons that you should arrange regular tests with your local sexual health clinic. Though testing can be a little uncomfortable, the chance of any pain is scarce, and the benefits outweigh any discomfort from a few minor prods and pokes. Many STIs can be cured through a quick round of antibiotics, and others can be managed through treatment. The important thing is that you catch them early.
Of course, prevention is better than infection, and whilst STIs are not always preventable, the use of condoms and dental dams can lower your chances of contracting one. Oral contraceptives will not protect you against STIs, unlike condoms which are 98% effective against infections like chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Regardless of whether you’ve had one partner or 47, it is important to make sure you are conscious of your own sexual health and to talk to any partners about theirs. Sexually transmitted infections are common; catching chlamydia doesn’t make you dirty. Sex, above all, is supposed to be enjoyable. Being conscious of your sexual health will make things all the more pleasant.