Sexually Transmitted Infections
True Statements about STIs:
- You CAN get an STI without having intercourse.
- You cannot get HIV from sitting on toilet seats.
- Birth control pills DO NOT protect from STIs.
Prevention and detection
If you are sexually active, talk to your doctor about STI screening. Screening tests can help find STIs early, so they can be treated. Treatment can cure some STIs, and help manage those that can't be cured. Of course, the best course of action is to prevent infection in the first place by practicing safer sex, which includes the use of a condom—every time.
Safer sex isn't just about preventing HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. There are other infections you can get that are less well known.
- A sexually transmitted infection (STI) is an infection that’s passed from one person to another through unprotected sex or genital contact. STIs may be caused by bacteria, viruses or other microorganisms called protozoa.
- STIs are spread during vaginal, anal or oral sex or during genital touching. Many STIs have no symptoms, so you might not be able to tell if a person is infected. Even if there are no symptoms, STIs can still be passed from person to person. The only way to be sure whether or not you have an STI is to be checked by your doctor.
- Many STIs are treatable, but others are very difficult to cure, with some causing infertility, cancer and even death. If a pregnant woman has an STI, it can cause health problems for the baby.
- Untreated STIs can cause cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, widespread infection to other parts of the body, organ damage and even death. Having a STI also puts you at greater risk of getting HIV.
- There is no 100% method to prevent yourself from getting infected, except if you abstain from having sexual intercourse. The best way to protect yourself is to always use barrier methods of contraception, i.e. male or female condoms, provided the condom doesn’t break or tear and expose you to infection. Women can now be vaccinated against some strains of human papillomavirus (HPV).
The good news is that most STIs like chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and trichomonas are completely treatable with appropriate medication. People who are being treated for a bacterial STI should not have sex until the infection has been eliminated from them and their sexual partners. Therefore, sex partners need to be tested and treated at the same time.
Viral STIs such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), human papilloma virus (HPV) and herpes simplex virus (HSV) usually persist for life. Most viral STIs can’t be cured, but treatment can help relieve the symptoms.
- Chlamydia is caused by a type of bacteria called Chlamydia trachomatis. Left untreated, it can cause extensive damage to fallopian tubes, leading to infertility or premature births. In men, chlamydia can cause genital tract infection
- Symptoms: Most people with chlamydia have no symptoms, though they can easily spread the infection to others
- Treatment: Antibiotics are used to treat chlamydia
- Gonorrhea is caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae, a type of bacteria. Left untreated, it can lead to severe pelvic infection and inflammation of the urogenital tract. A relatively common STD, gonorrhea can cause infertility in women. In both men and women, it may cause septicemia, arthritis and meningitis. It can also cause blindness in newborns
- Symptoms: There may be no symptoms at first. Later, gonorrhea can cause burning when urinating, yellowish vaginal discharge, redness and swelling of the genitals, and burning or itching of the vaginal area
- Treatment: Although antibiotics can cure gonorrhea, they can't reverse the damage caused by the infection
- A bacterium called Treponema pallidum causes syphilis by infecting the moist, mucus-covered lining of the mouth or genitals. Syphilis is easily curable in its early stages but, left untreated, can lead to severe illness, permanent damage or even death
- Symptoms: Each stage of syphilis has different symptoms. During the first stage, a painless ulcer can appear where the infection entered. Syphilis is highly contagious when an ulcer is present. In the second stage, which occurs weeks to months after the first stage, a rash typically develops on the hands and feet. In the third or latent stage, which can last many years, there are no symptoms. It is during this late stage that the disease can cause severe damage to the nerves and central nervous system, and affect the internal organs. More than two thirds of people infected with syphilis will not proceed to the late stage of the disease.1
- Treatment: Antibiotics. Syphilis is curable if treatment is started early enough
- Genital herpes is a viral infection that causes redness and blistering of the genitals or mouth to recur periodically. In pregnant women, there is a small risk of the child being infected during delivery, which can cause encephalitis (brain inflammation), which can be fatal
- Symptoms: Typically, there are no symptoms for the first 3 to 7 days after exposure. An outbreak usually begins as an itching or tingling sensation, followed by redness of the skin, and finally by a blister. Blisters are usually very painful to the touch and last from 1 to 2 weeks. Outbreaks typically recur
- Treatment: There is currently no cure, but antiviral drugs can shorten, lessen the severity of, and possibly prevent outbreaks
Human papilloma virus (HPV)
- HPV refers to a large group of viruses, many of which can be spread through sexual contact. So-called high-risk types may cause abnormal Pap smear tests, along with cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus or penis. So-called low-risk types may cause mild Pap smear abnormalities and genital warts
- Symptoms: Sexually transmitted strains of HPV can infect the genital area of men and women, including the skin of the penis, vulva or anus, and the linings of the vagina, cervix or rectum. Some people infected with HPV will have no symptoms and the infection will clear
- Some studies suggest that long-term use of the Pill may increase a woman's risk of developing cervical cancer. However, it is not clear to what extent sexual behavior or other factors, such as HPV, increase this risk
- Treatment: A Pap smear can detect changes on the cervix caused by HPV, and there are treatments available for the changes HPV causes. Although there currently are no treatments to eliminate HPV, a vaccine against HPV infection is now available in many countries around the world
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
- HIV affects the immune system and causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. AIDS refers to the stage of the disease in which the immune system is so weak that infectious diseases and tumors can develop. HIV spreads through body fluids, and can be transmitted in a number of ways, including unprotected sex, contaminated syringes, the transfusion of contaminated blood and from mother-to-child during pregnancy
- Symptoms: Without treatment, it usually takes several years from initial HIV infection to manifestation of AIDS. Early AIDS symptoms are non-specific; later, severe diseases affecting major organs can develop, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, and cancers
- Treatment: While there is currently no cure, HIV medicines (including anti-retrovirals, or ARVs) enable people to live longer, healthier lives
With all STDs, it's critical that both the person who is infected and her or his sexual partner(s) receive prompt medical attention. If you suspect that you or a partner have contracted an STD, call your doctor right away.
- STI symptoms aren’t always obvious. If you think you have STI symptoms or have been exposed to an STI, see a healthcare professional or visit your local clinic. Some STIs can be treated easily and eliminated, but others require more involved, long-term treatment.
- The only way to stay 100% safe from STIs is to abstain from sex completely. However, using barrier methods of contraception will greatly reduce your risk of becoming infected. It’s therefore better to never come in contact with STIs in the first place, by choosing your sexual partners carefully and ALWAYS using the right protection!
- If you’ve had unprotected sex, even just once, or with a new partner, the most responsible thing to do is to get yourself tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). You may be infected and, unknowingly, spread these infections to your future sexual partners.
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This website is intended to provide information to a local audience within South Africa.
Last updated on 11 June 2015