“Women in particular are more at risk of showing no symptoms,’ says Dr Knut Schroeder, from NHS Choices. ‘In fact, 70 to 80 per cent of women show no signs of having chlamydia infections, compared with around 50 per cent of men. If left untreated, chlamydia can cause infertility in both men and women. And approximately half of women also don’t show symptoms for gonorrhoea.’
According to the Health Protection Agency, there were 418,598 people diagnosed with an STI in England in 2010; a one per cent decrease from 2009 – but it’s no time for complacency. ‘Cases of genital herpes increased by eight per cent from 2009 to 2010,’ says Dr Alex Vass, a GP from HarleyStreet.com. ‘Rates of STIs are highest in urban areas with risk of infection in young people and gay men. In fact, young people account for around 50 per cent of all STIs diagnosed in sexual health clinics.’
If you’re sexually active, it’s important to get regular checks from a sexual health clinic or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic at a surgery or hospital.
You can also see your GP for diagnosis and treatment for STIs such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and genital herpes. They also offer HIV testing (including rapid test for fast results) and counselling for people who are HIV-positive.
Depending on which STI you’re being screened for, the test may include: an examination of your genitals, mouth, skin and anus; providing a urine sample; giving a blood sample; a swab being taken from the throat, rectum and urethra (the tube you pass urine from). Additionally for women, a swab can be taken from the vagina or cervix, which is painless. All GPs offer free condoms, so it’s worth a visit.
Jane, 26, contracted an STI after a brief relationship with a man from work. ‘I couldn’t believe I’d contracted herpes,’ she says. ‘The doctor was very reassuring about treatment and how to cope with it but I feel really ashamed and dirty. It’s for life – I can’t get my head around this fact. I’m unsure what I’m going to tell my future partners. I’ve since abstained from sex, I’m not really in the mood to date guys and I’ve also not been brave enough to tell my friends.
‘I feel very angry at the guy who must have given it to me; it’s not a good memory of a brief affair. I was too embarrassed and ashamed to confront him about it, so I just ended the relationship instead.
‘I’ve since researched herpes. I know I’ll cope with it, I just wish I’d been more careful. I realise now that I was pretty ignorant about herpes and STIs in general.’
Dr Thom Van Every, sexual health expert at Lloydspharmacy’s online doctor service, says: ‘In 2011, 74 per cent of our online customers aged 18 to 35, requested an STI test. One in ten tested positive.’
Due to a significant increase in the diagnosis of STIs, Lloydspharmacy commissioned a survey to raise awareness of sexual health. It found that 38 per cent of people didn’t use condoms while on holiday, insisting they were caught up ‘in the heat of the moment’. Almost a third were aware of potential consequences of unprotected sex but went ahead anyway.
When asked about holiday sex, women were less concerned about catching an STI. Worryingly, 37 per cent of women (compared with 24 per cent of men), admitted they weren’t concerned about catching an STI. And 42 per cent of women (compared with 33 per cent of men) said it didn’t cross their mind to have an STI test when they returned home.
Couples who have a healthy and respectful relationship can still find it hard to talk about sex. It can actually impact on them physically, psychologically and also on their emotional well-being.
Denise Knowles, from advice and counselling website Relate.org.uk, thinks it’s vital any worries are addressed as soon as possible. ‘Some men and women can withdraw from having sexual relationships if they’re feeling anxious about having, or carrying an STI,’ she says. ‘This isn’t very healthy, on many levels, for them or their partner.’
Some STIs cause few or no symptoms and can take several months to manifest. If you think you might have an STI, it’s better to go to your GP, sexual health clinic, or GUM clinic for a free and confidential check up sooner rather than later.
COMMON SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED INFECTIONS
Symptoms: Women suffer with pelvic pain and bleeding between periods or after sex. Men experience pain in the testicles and a discharge from the penis. Both can have pain when passing urine.
Treatment: Usually a course of antibiotics.
Symptoms: Many people have no symptoms when first infected; if you do, they usually appear four to seven days later and include painful red blisters (which can burst). It can be diagnosed easily and accurately when infection is still present, so seek advice as soon as you can.
Treatment: There’s no cure but symptoms can be effectively controlled using antiviral medicine.
Symptoms: As a bacterial infection, symptoms can appear within two weeks of infection. However, 50 per cent of women and 10 per cent of men with gonorrhoea have no obvious symptoms, which can include green or yellow discharge from the vagina and penis.
Treatment: Diagnosed via a swab test, it’s treated with antibiotics but if left untreated, it can lead to infertility and further health problems.
Pubic Lice (Crabs)
Symptoms: These tiny bloodsucking insects live in coarse human body hair and symptoms include itchy red spots in the pubic area.
Treatment: Over-the-counter insecticide medicines available at pharmacies, GP surgeries or a GUM clinic.
Symptoms: This bacterial infection can appear ten days to three months after contracted and symptoms are often mild (so you can pass it on to others without knowing). Common symptoms include highly infectious sores on the genitals or mouth; these can last for two to six weeks before disappearing.
Treatment: If diagnosed early, it can be treated with antibiotics, usually penicillin injections. If left untreated, it can cause serious conditions such as strokes, paralysis, blindness or death. Every pregnant woman should have a blood test for syphilis, as the infection can kill unborn or new-born babies.
For more information, visit NHS Choices at www.nhs.uk and check the Live Well section. It contains interactive tools and information about sexual health, including a vital sexual health self-assessment, and STI symptom-checker.