Everything you need to know about STIs

STIs are much more common than you think, particularly since you can have an STI without any symptoms. Anyone who is sexually active can get an STI – though having safe sex obviously helps in preventing them. In this article, we give you the lowdown on STIs, including how they are spread, tested for and treated.

What’s an STI and how are they spread?

STIs are passed on from one partner to another during sexual activities when bodily fluids (like semen, vaginal fluid and blood) are exchanged and skin-to-skin contact occurs.

This includes:

  • penetrative sex (vaginal and anal sex)
  • oral sex (licking, sucking and kissing of the genitals)
  • oral-anal sex (licking and kissing of the anus)
  • manual sex (sexual activities involving the hands, such as fingering and touching of the genitals and anus).

Types of STIs

There are three main categories of STIs:

  1. Bacterial: Caused by bacteria and include chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis. Antibiotics can be taken to cure bacterial STIs.
  2. Viral: Genital herpes, genital warts, HIV and hepatitis B are viral STIs. While there are treatments to help manage the symptoms of viral STIs, some stay with you for life, while others can disappear with time.
  3. Parasitic: Caused by parasites and include pubic lice and trichomonas. Topical treatments or antibiotics are used to cure parasitic STIs.

How do I know if I have an STI?

It’s essential to realise that you can have an STI without any symptoms. The same also applies to any potential sexual partners you may have. This is why it’s so important for you and your partner to schedule regular sexual health check-ups, especially if you’re both sexually active or have been in the past.

It’s also important to have a check-up if:

  • you have symptoms of an STI, which can include an unusual discharge, bleeding, pain or irritation of the genitals, and pain when peeing or during sex
  • you have had unsafe sex – including if the condom broke
  • if a sexual partner has or is being treated for an STI
  • if you are preparing to have a baby or are pregnant
  • if you’ve started a new sexual relationship, or are about to start having sex without condoms (remember contraception such as the pill and IUDs (inter-uterine devices) don’t protect you from STIs).

Getting a sexual health check-up is easy and can be done either by a GP, a Family Planning clinic, a sexual health clinic, or a youth health clinic.

What does a sexual health check-up involve?

A sexual health check-up usually involves a chat with your health professional about your sexual activity, history, partners, as well as your general health and if you have any STI symptoms.

Tests may include: a urine test, a swab test (taken from the vagina, anus, throat, or from a sore or blister, if you have any), a physical examination if you have blisters or sores, or a blood test.

If you do have an STI, your doctor will advise you what the next steps are to treat or cure it and how to avoid passing it on to others. It’s also important that you let your current and previous partners know so they can get tested and treated for the STI as well.

To learn more about sexual health check-ups, check out this factsheet ‘Taking care of your sexual health’.

What can I do to prevent getting an STI?

Practicing safe sex will help protect you against STIs. This includes using:

Male condoms

Using a condom during vaginal, anal or oral sex will reduce the risk of transferring bodily fluids and minimise skin-to-skin contact. Condoms are generally made from latex rubber or a soft plastic called polyisoprene (latex free). They come in a range of sizes, styles, shapes and flavours, so you can try different ones until you find those that feel the best for you and your partner.

Find more information on our condoms page.

Female condoms

Generally made from nitrile (latex free), female condoms are inserted into the vagina before sex. They help prevent the transfer of semen, bodily fluids and skin-to-skin contact.

Want to know more? See our condoms page.

Dams

Although the risk of STIs via oral sex is generally low, if you or your partner have an outbreak of cold sores or genital herpes (or feel an outbreak coming on), this STI can be easily passed on between mouth and genitals. You can avoid sex (and oral sex) during these times or you can try using dams when having oral sex.

A dam is a thin sheet of latex or silicone that is put over the vagina or anus during oral sex. They come in a variety of flavours and help reduce skin-to-skin contact and stop bodily fluids being passed between one partner’s mouth and the other’s vagina or anus.

Find more information about dams here.

Lube

Using a little bit of lube – which comes in various flavours and sensations – with condoms and dams can reduce friction during sex and make it feel a little bit more slippery, sensitive and fun. It can also help condoms from breaking if put on the outside (recommended for anal sex). Don’t put lube on the inside of condoms as this can increase the chances a condom may slip off.

Learn more about lube here.

Using condoms is the best protection you have. Both male and female condoms reduce the risk of STIs.

Also, avoid having sex with someone when they have STI symptoms. Have a sexual health check-up – and ask your partner to have one too.

Learn more about STIs and safe sex methods here ‘Your best defence: Keeping an eye on STIs’.