Your chill AF and accurate guide to STIs. What they are, how you can avoid them and how you can get tests and treatments. With no gruesome pics or stories.
About the main types of STIs
We can do a lot to prevent getting an STI – particularly the most serious infections. Lots of people have sex and don’t get STIs by having safer sex. However sometimes it’s not possible to have safer sex, or we try but can’t or we choose not to. Sometimes it’s possible to get an infection even if we are trying to have safer sex.
A lot of people people experience stigma as a result of having an STI. No other illness results in people being judged or looked down on, but sometimes people are treated unfairly or discriminated against because they have an STI, particularly HIV.
There are over 25 STIs like Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea, HIV/AIDS, Herpes, Warts, Hepatitis, NSU and Syphilis. The most common is HPV which is usually harmless. The most common bacterial infection is chlamydia, which is easy to treat but can have long-term effects if not treated. HIV (which can leads to AIDS) is not one of the most common but is one of the most serious – there’s still no cure for HIV.
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How you get an STI?
You can only get STIs from having sex with someone with an STI – usually from penis in anus and/or penis in vagina sex.
Germs in semen or unusual discharge can infect someone in their anus or vagina. Germs in blood or vaginal juices can get inside someone’s penis under the foreskin or through the pee hole.
STIs can also be caught from masturbating yourself immediately after masturbating someone else (by using fingers or using sex toys), although the risks are lower. They can also be caught from oral sex (blow jobs or going down) although the risks of getting HIV from this are thought to be very very low indeed. Some less problematic STIs can also be caught just by people rubbing their genitals together – such as genital warts or herpes if someone has an outbreak on their upper thigh for instance.
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How do you know?
STIs can cause painful or uncomfortable symptoms which can require treatment, such as: itching, warts or blisters, pain when peeing, blood in urine, sore genitals, lower abdomen pain, unusual discharge from the penis, vagina or anus. Often getting treatment for these symptoms is why people go to a clinic.
However most cases of STIs have no symptoms.
This means that people think they are fine (‘if I don’t feel ill I don’t have an infection’) but are still infectious and are able to spread the germs to other people they shag. This is important. Even if someone has symptoms they can often be so mild that they can’t be seen or felt – this is why I’m not putting diseased genital pictures here. So the only way of finding out for sure is by getting a test.
No symptoms, no problem?
‘So Justin, if I’m not ill, or in pain, why is an STI a problem?’ Good question. You can spread an infection even if you don’t realise you have it – this might not make you very popular with the people you’ve been having sex with.
It can be really hard telling a sexual partner you have an infection a) because they may worry about getting it from you or b) that they gave it to you. Because of the stigma about STIs this can make it even harder.
Also STIs can damage your health in the long term if you don’t get treated. They can make having kids difficult (or can cause dangerous pregnancies), they can damage your immune system and can be a cause of some cancers – so they can shorten your life.
Getting a test done
Tests and treatment for STIs are totally free and confidential.
If you think you might have an infection from having sex you can have a range of tests done at a sexual health clinic. All tests are optional but can involve giving a urine sample, a small blood sample (sometimes this is done with a fingerprick), a swab (a vaginal swab can be done by the patient and is really easy), a sample of saliva or a physical examination of wherever you may have an infection. You can get treatment free and confidentially from these services as well as condoms and advice about safer sex. You can also get home kits for STI testing now too.
Getting a treatment
All STIs are treatable and some are curable (eg chlamydia, gonorrhoea (which is getting harder to treat)). There is no cure for HIV at the moment but there are really effective treatments available to help people live long and happy lives – HIV is a managable illness, if it’s detected soon enough. In the UK, treatment for STIs is free (no prescription charges).
Safer sex pro-tips
Condoms really reduce the risk of getting an STI.
If you always have safer sex you may never get an STI. Using condoms really reduces the chances of getting most STIs. They prevent fluids (semen, vaginal fluid, blood etc) from entering another person. So they make penis in vagina or anus sex a lot safer. They also prevent skin on skin contact for the area which is covered by a condom, so they offer some protection from HPV (warts) and HSV (herpes). Sharing sex toys can carry some risk so condoms can be put over those before being placed inside someone else. Oral sex on a penis can be made safer by using condoms. Or a condom can be cut in half lengthways and placed over the vulva or anus.
You can only get an infection from someone with an infection, so some sex partners reduce their risks from STIs by getting tested for infections, getting the ‘all clear’ and then only having sex with each other (or using another safer sex method if they shag someone else). Remember though it can take a few weeks for some STIs to show up. Get some advice from your local service about this.
Couples who avoid entry sex (particularly penis in vagina or anus sex) are at a much lower risk of getting an infection. It can still be really really enjoyable – in fact lots of people actually prefer having sex without having entry sex.
So you should try and avoid getting an infection from sex, however I’m not going to tell you that these infections are scary because often they aren’t. They are very common and sometimes, s**t happens. We should treat STIs like any other illnesses.
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© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.