The pleasures of sex are varied and wide-reaching, but it is important to keep yourself as safe as possible, especially if you’re looking for a casual relationship rather than a long-term partnership.
In this article, partly guest written by the FPA, we will look at the signs you may have an STI, the top five things you should know about STDs and some of the sexually transmitted infections that are proving increasingly difficult to treat.
Firstly, let’s take a look at some of the symptoms of sexual transmitted diseases.
Symptoms of STIs
First things first, it’s really important to know that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) don’t always announce their arrival with an array of signs and symptoms.
It’s possible to have an infection and not have any symptoms at all. Sometimes symptoms might show weeks or months later following sexual contact, during which time you could still pass an STI on to someone else.
For example, about 70% of men and half of women who have chlamydia don’t get any symptoms, yet if left untreated it can cause painful complications and lead to serious health problems, such as infertility. And up to half of men and women with trichomonas vaginalis don’t experience any symptoms at all.
If you’ve had unprotected sex (without a condom) or any sort of sex where you were naked and rubbing up against your partner, you could have an infection so rather than hope for the best, it’s a good idea to get tested regularly. That way you’ll be able to put your mind at ease and, in the case of a positive diagnosis, be able to get the right treatment.
Having said that, there are some tell-tale signs of STIs which, if you do experience, you should get checked out as soon as you can by a health professional.
Unusual Discharge from the Vagina
This is a common symptom and can be a sign of infections including chlamydia, gonorrhoea and trichomonas vaginalis. Lots of women worry about vaginal discharge and aren’t sure what is normal or not, especially as normal discharge changes in consistency and colour during the menstrual cycle.
However, if your discharge becomes particularly thin and watery, or frothy, appears more yellow or green, or has an unpleasant smell, speak to a doctor or nurse.
Discharge from the Penis
It is normal for men to have a small amount of clear or whitish discharge when the penis is erect, known as pre-ejaculate or pre-come. However, unusual discharge, which you might notice with a stain in your underwear or when the penis is not erect, can be a sign of infection.
A white, cloudy or watery discharge from the tip of the penis can be a symptom of chlamydia, while gonorrhoea can produce an unusual white, yellow or green discharge.
Unusual Bleeding or Pain
In some women, bleeding between periods or a heavier than usual period, or bleeding during or after sex, can be a sign of chlamydia. Hormonal changes when using contraception can also cause unusual bleeding which is not harmful, but it’s best to get checked out in case the bleeding is a sign of an infection or other more serious health problem.
Pain when peeing can be a symptom of chlamydia, genital herpes, gonorrhoea or trichomonas vaginalis for both men and women. Women with chlamydia or gonorrhoea might also notice unusual lower abdominal pain.
Itches, Rashes, Lumps or Blisters
Unusual lumps and bumps in the genital or anal area can be a tell-tale sign of an STI.
Genital warts, caused by the human papilloma virus, can appear anywhere in or on the genital or anal area. They can be flat or smooth small bumps or quite large, pink, cauliflower-like lumps, and they can appear on their own or in groups.
Genital herpes, caused by the herpes simplex virus, can produce stinging, tingling and itching and you might also notice small, fluid-filled blisters anywhere in the genital or anal area, on the buttocks and the tops of the thighs. These burst within a day or two leaving small, red sores which can be very painful, particularly when peeing.
When you have syphilis, one or more sores – usually painless – can appear where the bacteria entered the body. Inflammation, itching and soreness in and around the vagina can also be a sign of trichomonas vaginalis.
Feeling under the weather – tired with a loss of appetite, sore throat, aching body – none of these necessarily mean you have an STI. However, HIV, genital herpes and syphilis infections can all give you flu-like symptoms. So if you think you may have taken a risk, and you are experiencing these symptoms, get yourself checked out.
If you are worried you may have been exposed to HIV, see a health professional as soon as possible. There may be the option of a month-long course of treatment called post-exposure prophylaxis – the same drugs taken by people diagnosed with HIV – which can prevent infection if started within 72 hours of exposure.
It's also worth noting that anyone can get an STI. Lots of people still believe that you have to have lots of sexual partners to get an STI, which is simply not true. Anyone who is sexually active is at risk, even if they’ve only had sex once. STIs can be passed on through vaginal, anal or oral sex, by genital contact and through sharing sex toys.
STIs don’t discriminate by age either – young people and older people alike are at risk. Young people under 25 remain the age group most likely to be diagnosed with an STI but the rate of infection among people over 45 has been increasing in recent years. For this very reason it’s incredibly important to use condoms, especially if you’re looking for something a little more casual.
Use Condoms & Communicate
Condoms are the only method of contraception that help protect against STIs. They won’t stop all infections (for example those passed on through skin-to-skin contact) but they are the best way to prevent most infections being passed on through sex. A dental dam (a square piece of latex or polyurethane) can be used as a barrier between the mouth and vagina or anus during oral sex.
Talking about using condoms with a partner doesn’t always come easily, even if you’ve been together for a while. We’ve got some tips to get you started on our FPA Pleasure site, but in a nutshell the more you talk about sex, condoms and your relationship generally, the more comfortable it will feel.
Always couple a condom with a suitable lube. Durex lubes are safe to use with the full collection of Durex condoms, meaning you can be confident of a smooth and sensual experience for you and your lover while maintaining that effective barrier from STIs and pregnancy.
Before you and your partner take your relationship to the next level, speaking openly about your sexual history is a great way of gaining insight into their sexual past and safe sex practices. Not only does open communication encourage trust and respect between you and your partner, it can help reduce the risks of contracting or transmitting a STI. If you are unsure on how to broach the topic or afraid that you might be judged, speak with a health care provider to discuss your sexual practices openly and ask for tips to help open up a discussion with your partner.
Thankfully, most STIs can be treated easily but it is paramount that you act as quickly as possible if you think you may have contracted one. There are treatments for many STDs, but it is always better to avoid getting an infection in the first place, and it’s usually best if treatment is started as soon as possible.
Infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea require antibiotics, others may need creams, lotions or other treatment. Some viruses, such as genital herpes and HIV, never leave the body but treatment can help reduce the symptoms.
If left untreated, many STIs can be painful or uncomfortable and can be passed on to someone else. Some infections, such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea can cause damage to health and fertility if left untreated.
We’ve started to see cases where gonorrhoea, one of the most common STIs, is resistant to antibiotics, which makes it even more important that infections are not passed on.
Where to Get Tested
All STI tests and treatments are free through the NHS at genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinics. You can find your nearest service by using FPA’s Find a clinic tool. Many GPs
offer free STI testing as well, although you may have to pay a prescription charge for any treatment.
In England, the National Chlamydia Screening Programme offers testing for young people under 25 at various locations around the country and also gives out free home testing kits.
There is no need to fear STI tests. For both men and women they can often be as easy as giving a urine sample, or they might involve a visual examination to look for signs of infection, having blood taken, or using a swab on the genital area – the myth of having an umbrella-shaped instrument inserted really is just a myth!
If you’ve never had a test before it’s understandable you might be a bit nervous and if a swab is needed, some services will offer you the option of using it yourself. Remember, health professionals don’t look at an STI test as a reflection on your behaviour, but as a sensible health decision – and they do lots of tests every day.