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How to Protect Yourself Against STIs: Where To Start & What To Look Out For

It might not be the most popular or comfortable subject, but Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) are a public health topic that often don’t get the attention they deserve. Despite their prevalence, many STIs are preventable with the right knowledge and practices, and understanding your own health status is the best place to begin.

Regular testing for STIs, even in the absence of symptoms, safety measures like condoms, and open communication with sexual partners about STI status are all vital aspects of prevention. Discussing health concerns and boundaries helps to build trust and ensure mutual understanding and safety between partners so that prevention is that much more effective. Vaccines also play a significant role in preventing certain STIs.

But what else do you need to know? What’s important to bear in mind as you take control of your sexual health? We can help you with that.

What are some of the most common STIs and what are the symptoms?

STIs affect thousands of individuals worldwide. We promise we don’t say that to scare you! These are infections just like many other illnesses that require a little knowledge in order to learn their proper care and prevention. (Nobody wants the flu, so taking a few precautions keeps you from catching it, right?) That starts with knowing what to look out for.

Chlamydia often presents no symptoms, but it can cause genital pain and discharge if left untreated and is typically cured with antibiotics. If it goes fully undetected, it can lead to fertility problems further down the line including difficulty conceiving, or infertility. Gonorrhoea also frequently shows no symptoms but can lead to painful urination and abnormal discharge, and its treatment is becoming more complicated due to antibiotic resistance. Syphilis progresses through stages starting with sores and rashes, and if untreated, it can cause severe organ damage; it is treatable with antibiotics, particularly penicillin.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a widespread viral infection with some strains causing genital warts and others leading to cancers such as cervical and throat cancer. While there is no cure for HPV, vaccines can prevent the most dangerous strains, and treatments are available for warts and precancerous conditions. Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) types 1 and 2 cause painful blisters or sores in the mouth and genital area, respectively. Although there is no cure for HSV, antiviral medications can manage outbreaks and reduce transmission risk.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) initially presents with flu-like symptoms and can progress to AIDS, severely compromising the immune system. There is no cure, but antiretroviral therapy can control the virus and allow individuals to lead long, healthy lives.

Trichomoniasis is often asymptomatic but can cause genital itching, burning, and discomfort during urination or sex. It is treatable with antibiotics such as metronidazole or tinidazole. Hepatitis B, a liver infection, can result in symptoms like fatigue, jaundice, and abdominal pain, with chronic infection leading to liver disease. Antiviral medications and vaccinations are available for its management and prevention.

Pubic lice, or crabs, often lead to itching in the genital area and can be treated with over-the-counter lotions and shampoos. Scabies results in intense itching and a pimple-like rash and is treatable with prescription creams or lotions.

Developing a base level of knowledge of these common STIs underscores the importance of regular testing. Practising safe sex and maintaining open communication with sexual partners is vital to effectively prevent and manage infections.

How are STIs transmitted?

Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) are primarily transmitted through sexual activities, but there are several other modes of transmission you should know about, too.

Common methods of transmission:

  • Sexual Contact: HIV, Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea, Syphilis, Trichomoniasis, Herpes, HPV, and others are spread through sexual contact, including vaginal or anal intercourse as well as oral sex.
  • Exchange of Bodily Fluids: HIV, Hepatitis B, and Syphilis are a few infections that can be transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids, including blood, semen, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, and saliva.
  • Skin-to-Skin Contact: Genital Herpes and HPV can be spread through direct skin-to-skin contact with an infected area or sore.
  • Contaminated Objects: Using contaminated needles or receiving infected blood through transfusions can transmit infections like HIV and Hepatitis B and C. Although less common, some other STIs like pubic lice and scabies can be spread through contact with contaminated objects such as bedding, towels, or clothing.
  • During Pregnancy or Childbirth: Certain STIs like HIV, syphilis, and gonorrhoea can be passed from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy, labour, or breastfeeding.

Getting regular STI tests keeps you informed about your sexual health

Regular STI testing is essential for maintaining sexual health and well-being. Since so many infections can be asymptomatic (meaning you’ll notice no symptoms), those who may not show any signs of infection still face serious health consequences if the infection is left untreated. Routine testing allows for early detection, helps lead to effective treatment, and can assist in preventing complications like infertility, chronic pain, or even life-threatening conditions such as cancer.

Getting tested regularly also plays a significant role in preventing the spread of infections to others. When you’re aware of your STI status, you can take appropriate steps to protect your partner or partners, such as using condoms consistently and correctly or abstaining from sexual activity until an infection is treated. Open communication about test results fosters trust and responsible sexual behaviour, reducing the overall prevalence of STIs in the community.

In addition to all of the personal benefits, regular STI testing also helps to break down the stigma associated with sexual health. Normalising routine testing can encourage more people to get checked without fear or shame, promoting a culture of health and prevention. Accessible and confidential testing services are vital to achieving this goal, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to stay informed about their sexual health and take the necessary actions to protect themselves and their partners.

How to get tested:  

  • Most of the UK is now covered with free postal STI testing kits, which use finger-prick blood collection and swabs. Use SH:24 to check availability in your area.
  • Your GP will be able to signpost you to the relevant STI testing services in your area and may even be able to do on-site testing.
  • Most of the UK will have access to local sexual health clinics, which you can find through the NHS website.

Safe sex practices and open communication with partners are the best ways forward

If we haven’t already stressed this enough, we’ll say it again: Talk to your partner!

It’s critical to keep everyone on the same page when engaging in any degree of sexual activity, and trust us, you’ll have a lot more fun in the long run.

Here are some important sexual health tips to bear in mind as you have those conversations.

Using Condoms Consistently and Correctly

Male and Female Condoms: Use condoms during vaginal, anal, and oral sex. Condoms act as a barrier to prevent the exchange of bodily fluids that can transmit STIs.

Proper Usage: Be sure condoms are used from start to finish of sexual activity, and follow instructions to avoid breakage or slippage.

Getting Vaccinated

HPV Vaccine: Protects against the human papillomavirus, which can cause genital warts and various cancers.

Hepatitis B Vaccine: Prevents hepatitis B, a virus that can be transmitted through sexual contact.

Maintaining Open Communication Between All Involved

Discuss STI Status: Talk with your partner(s) about STI testing and sexual health history before engaging in sexual activity.

Set Boundaries: Establish mutual consent, and make sure everyone agrees on safe sex practices.

Getting Regular STI Tests

Routine Check-ups: Regular testing ensures early detection and treatment of STIs, preventing further spread and health complications.

Testing After New Partners: Get tested when entering a new sexual relationship or after unprotected sex.

Sharing Sex Toys (Don’t!)

Clean and Cover: If sharing sex toys, clean them thoroughly between uses or use a new condom on the toy with each partner to prevent STI transmission.

Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP)

HIV Prevention: For anyone at high risk of HIV, taking PrEP can significantly reduce the risk of contracting the virus.

Post-exposure Prophylaxis (PEP)

Emergency HIV Prevention: PEP can be taken within 72 hours after potential exposure to HIV to prevent infection.

Maintaining Your Personal Hygiene

After Sex: Washing the genital area after sex can help reduce the risk of infections, though it is not a substitute for other preventative safe sex practices.

By incorporating these safety practices, you can significantly reduce your risk of contracting and transmitting STIs. Your sexual health is important! Living your best life means taking your body’s needs seriously, and that includes taking responsible measures to make sure everyone stays healthy.

Evidence Based
This article has been reviewed by our Kari Health Experts and Editorial Board to ensure accuracy and reliability of the information presented. However, please note that the content provided is for informational purposes only and should not replace advice from your medical professional.

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