If statistics are anything to go by, the number of people affected by a sexually transmitted infection (STI) is on the rise, with nearly 500,000 diagnosed last year alone across the UK. With symptoms tricky to recognise – if there are any at all – many of us remain in the dark when it comes to knowing when to spot an STI and seek treatment. Plus, if left untreated, some STIs can cause long-term damage and can even affect fertility. Read on to find out everything you need to know about STIs...
With around 50,000 cases diagnosed every year in London alone, chlamydia is the most common STI in the UK. One-in-ten under-25s who are sexually active have the bacterial infection but many are unaware due to the lack of symptoms.
How do you get it? Unprotected vaginal or anal sex; it can be transmitted through oral sex, although this is rare.
What are the symptoms? Most of the time there are no symptoms but it can cause a pain or burning sensation when urinating, vaginal discharge, pain in the lower abdomen during or after sex, and bleeding during or after sex or between periods.
How to treat it? Diagnosing chlamydia is done with a urine test or by taking a swab of the affected area. The infection is easily treated with antibiotics but can lead to serious long-term health problems if left untreated, including infertility.
Genital warts are a common infection caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). They are the most common viral sexually transmitted infection (STI).
How do you get it? Through vaginal or anal sex or other genital skin-to-skin contact.
What are the symptoms? Small pinkish or cauliflower-like white lumps that can be on the vulva, penis, scrotum, anus or in the vagina. They can be itchy but are usually painless.
How to treat it? Some people develop symptoms a few days after coming into contact with the virus; after you’ve been infected, the virus remains dormant for years. However, certain triggers can reactivate the virus, causing the blisters to develop again. It’s easier to test for the infection if you have symptoms and although there is no cure, symptoms can be controlled using antiviral medicines.
Isn’t HPV linked to cervical cancer? Certain strains of HPV can cause cervical cancer. The new HPV vaccine helps protect against four types of HPV, including two types which cause around 90% of genital warts.
Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Cases in the UK are currently rising by around 5% each year, most prevalent among women aged 16-24. However, cases in the over-45 age group have risen by 83% since 2000.
How do you get it? Unprotected penetrative sex, including oral sex and other genital skin-to-skin contact. Cold sores around the mouth can also be passed to the partner’s genital area.
What are the symptoms? Initial symptoms include small blisters on the penis or vagina, which can leave painful ulcers, and may be accompanied by flu-like symptoms and difficulty in passing urine.
How to treat it? There is no cure for genital herpes although antiviral medications can help to reduce or eliminate outbreaks. A person who is newly infected with herpes will experience their first outbreak within 14 days; they may have multiple outbreaks during their first year although the number of outbreaks will reduce each year thereafter.
Gonorrhoea is the second most common bacterial STI in the UK after chlamydia with around 35,000 cases reported every year; most cases affect young men and women under the age of 25.
How do you get it? Unprotected penetrative (vaginal, anal) and oral sex.
What are the symptoms? Many people have none (50% of women who have it never have symptoms), but there could be pain when urinating, a discharge from the vagina or pain in the lower abdomen.
How to treat it? It is diagnosed using a urine test or by taking a swab of the affected area. The infection is easily treated with antibiotics but can lead to serious long-term health problems if left untreated. Previous successful treatment for gonorrhoea doesn’t make you immune to catching the infection again.
Compared to other STIs, the number of people diagnosed with syphilis is relatively low (around four people in every 100,000) although this number has increased by more than 600% in the last ten years.
How do you get it? Penetrative sex (vaginal or anal) and oral sex.
What are the symptoms? The main symptom is a painless but highly infectious sore on the genitals or around the mouth. The sore can last between two to six weeks, after which you may develop other symptoms, such as a rash and sore throat.
How to treat it? It can be easily treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early enough, but if left untreated, it can cause serious illness such as blindness, stroke or paralysis, and even premature death.
Standing for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, HIV is a serious virus that attacks the body’s defence system so illnesses can’t be fought off. A person is said to have AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) if they are infected with HIV and have also developed a number of severe illnesses.
How do you get it? Unprotected penetrative sex (anal or vaginal), sharing contaminated needles, from mother to unborn baby or through breastfeeding, or by receiving infected blood for medical reasons.
What are the symptoms? People with HIV can remain healthy for years with no signs or symptoms. However, signs of an impaired immune system include oral thrush and chest infections.
How to treat it? There’s no cure for HIV, but there are treatments that allow most people to live a long and otherwise healthy life. A simple blood test is usually used to test for an HIV infection. Some clinics may also offer a rapid test using a finger-prick blood test or saliva sample.
For more information, check out the official NHS advice.