What is a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI)?
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), also known as sexually transmitted infections (STIs), are typically caused by bacteria or viruses and passed from person to person during sexual contact with the penis, vagina, rectum, or mouth.
Sometimes, STIs like genital warts and herpes can be spread through skin-to-skin contact – simply kissing someone with a herpes blister may be enough to infect you.
Most STIs can be cured, but some will never go away and require lifelong treatment. STIs caused by bacteria are generally easier to treat while viral infections can be managed but not always cured, for example herpes and Hepatitis B. And make no mistake, having an STI puts you at a greater risk of getting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
What are the symptoms of STIs?
The symptoms of STIs vary between individuals, depending on the cause, and many people may not experience symptoms at all. You might have an STI if you experience a burning feeling in your genitals or when you pee; sores, small bumps or blisters on or near your penis, vagina or anus; itching around your penis, vagina or anus; unusual discharge – like a different colour, smell or amount – from the vagina or penis; lower abdominal pain; pain in the testicles; bleeding after intercourse or between periods; pain during sex; for women, unusual bleeding during your period.
Who is most at risk for STIs?
Anyone who is sexually active risks exposure to a sexually transmitted infection to some degree. Factors that may increase that risk include having unprotected sex. Improper or inconsistent use of condoms can increase your risk. Oral sex also carries a risk, as well as having sexual contact with multiple partners.
This is true for concurrent partners, as well as monogamous consecutive relationships, involving a history of STIs.
Being infected with one STI makes it much easier for another STI to take hold. If you’re infected with herpes, syphilis, gonorrhoea or chlamydia and you have unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner, you’re more likely to contract HIV. Also, it’s possible to be re-infected by the same infected partner if he or she isn’t also treated.
Anyone forced to have sexual intercourse or sexual activity will also be at risk. Dealing with rape or assault can be difficult, but it is important to be dealt with as soon as possible. Screening, treatment and emotional support can be offered. Abusing alcohol or using recreational drugs can add to one’s risk profile. Substance abuse can inhibit your judgment, making you more willing to participate in risky behaviour.
Injecting drugs: needle sharing spreads many serious infections, including HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. If you acquire HIV by injecting drugs, you can transmit it sexually.
Being an adolescent female brings certain risks: in adolescent girls the immature cervix is made up of constantly changing cells. These unstable cells make the adolescent female cervix more vulnerable to certain sexually transmitted organisms. Uncircumcised males are at greater risk of STIs since circumcision lowers a man’s risk of getting certain STIs, like syphilis and gonorrhoea
What do I do if I have an STI?
If you think you have a sexually transmitted infection, get it checked out as soon as possible. You can see your family doctor or visit your local clinic to find out exactly what you have and how you can treat it. To be on the safe side, it’s best to avoid having sex until you’ve seen a doctor about your concerns. It’s best to go with your partner.
How often should I get tested and checked for STIs?
If you’re sexually active, it’s a good idea to get tested every year for STIs, even if you feel fine. Make it part of your annual medical check-up. It’s a good practice to go for testing if you’re about to start a new relationship.
It’s best to be tested early in a relationship before “accidents’’ occur and always bring your partner. Some STIs have no symptoms so you may not even know you have it unless you get tested. Get tested before you fall pregnant and during early pregnancy.
Certain STIs such as gonorrhoea, chlamydia, HIV and syphilis can be passed from an infected mother to her child during pregnancy or delivery. STIs in infants can cause serious problems and may be fatal. Get tested if you have fertility issues, as STIs can also contribute to infertility.
What tests can be done
to detect STIs?
Blood tests can confirm the diagnosis of HIV, Hepatitis B or later stages of syphilis. Some STIs can be confirmed with a urine sample. If you have active genital sores, testing fluid and samples from the sores may be done to diagnose the type of infection.
Laboratory tests of material from a genital sore or discharge are used to diagnose the most common bacterial and some viral STIs at an early stage. Pap smears can detect HPV. Unfortunately, gonorrhoea and chlamydia are difficult to diagnose using ordinary blood or urine tests. Most centres opt to treat people based on the symptoms rather than do a confirmation test.
What are the complications of untreated STIs?
STI’s can lead to infertility in both men and women, ectopic pregnancy such as pregnancy outside the womb commonest in the fallopian tube, pelvic inflammatory disease, cervical cancer- HPV and liver cancer – Hepatitis B, scrotal swelling, pregnancy complications, joint pains – especially from chronic syphilis – skin rash, hair loss and eye complications.
Get early treatment, get all partners treated, and always use a condom.
Dr Brian Chaka can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org and 065 251373