Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
STIs can be passed between sexual partners during unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex, through sharing sex toys without using a new condom over them for each partner using them and sometimes through skin to skin contact if sores or rashes are present.
You don’t need to have lots of partners to get an infection. There is no reason to be embarrassed or guilty about getting an STI, in fact we know that these feelings actually stop people from getting tested and treated, making it more likely that STIs will impact on your sexual health and are passed on to your partners.
Most people won’t have or show any signs or symptoms of an STI so it’s important to test regularly and after each new sexual partner. If you have an STI and don’t know it you can pass on the infection unknowingly.
Sometimes symptoms don’t appear for weeks or months, and may go away, although you can still have the infection. If left untreated, many STIs can be painful or uncomfortable, and can permanently damage your health and fertility.
This is why it is important to be tested regularly.
These are the most common signs of an STI; if you experience any of the following, you should seek advice:
- Unusual discharge from the vagina
- Discharge from the penis
- Pain or burning when you pass urine (pee)
- Itches, rashes, lumps or blisters, mainly around the genitals or anus (back passage), but can be on other parts of the body.
- Pain and/or bleeding during sex
- Bleeding between periods (including those using hormonal contraception)
- Bleeding after sex
- Pain in the testicles
- Pain in the lower abdomen (belly)
However, if you don’t recognise any of these symptoms, and notice or experience something that isn’t normal for you, or doesn’t feel right then please seek advice from your GP or a sexual health clinic.
Tests and treatments
You can get tested and treated for all STIs at a sexual health clinic. GPs, contraception clinics, young people’s services and some pharmacies may also provide testing for some of the more commonly experienced STIs. If they can’t provide what you need, they will be able to give you details of the nearest service that can.
All testing, treatments, advice and information is free for everyone, although if you use your GP and need medication you may have to pay a prescription charge.
Tests may include:
- An exam of your genitals, mouth, anus and skin to look for signs of an infection like a rash, swelling, redness or discharge
- Testing a sample of your urine (pee)
- Having blood taken to test
- Swabbing your urethra (the tube that urine comes out of)
- Swabbing the throat and rectum
- Swabbing any sore, rashes or blisters present
People with a vagina/front hole may also be asked if it’s OK to
- Swab the vagina and cervix (if you have one)
- Have an internal exam
As you are not automatically tested for all infections, or at all sites that may show an infection, it is better to talk with the doctor or nurse and ask to be tested for the most common STIs and for throat and rectal swabs to be taken if you have oral and/or anal sex.
You can get a test kit to test yourself at home if you think you have an STI but aren’t showing any symptoms. Home tests are a good way to test for STIs like chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV. In some areas you can order a free home testing kit.
Some pharmacies sell STI test kits, make sure any that you buy have a CE mark.
Protection against STIs
Using condoms correctly and consistently with your partner(s) and on your sex toys if you share them will provide you with the best level of protection against STIs. Nothing will provide 100% protection as some STIs are spread via bodily contact with any sores, rashes or blisters present.
For the best way to protect against STIs:
- Use external (male) or internal (female) condoms every time you have penetrative sex, either vaginal/frontal or anal sex.
- Avoid sharing sex toys unless they are covered with a new condom before the other person uses them.
- During oral sex you could cover the penis with a condom, and the vulva and/or anus with a small latex or polythene sheet/square.
Different types of STIs
Find out more about the symptoms and treatment of different types of STIs at sexwise.org.uk.