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Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI)

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) - sometimes also called sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) - are infections that are passed on via sexual contact or the exchange of some body fluids.

STIs include chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV/AIDS, the human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes. Some of these are more common than others, but they can all cause serious health problems, so it's important that you know how to avoid catching them and what to do if you find out that you do have one. The most effective way to reduce your risk of catching an STI is to use a condom with a water-based lubricant every time you have sex.

If you find out that you have an STI, it's very important to inform your current partner, and any previous partners you might have had, if there's a chance they're also at risk. This can be embarrassing or difficult, so it helps to have support. You can find suggestions about how to have the conversation, and an anonymous means of delivering the information, at the Let Them KnowLink to Let Them Know website in a new window website.


  • Chlamydia

    Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that can affect both men and women. It's spread through unprotected vaginal or anal sex with an infected person. It's the most commonly reported STI for young people in Australia.

    Symptoms may not become evident for several weeks after sex with an infected partner, or even at all - most people who have chlamydia don't have any symptoms initially. Men should check for any discharge from the penis, a burning sensation on urinating and possible pain in or swelling of one or both testicles. Women should check for any unusual vaginal discharge, a burning feeling when urinating, bleeding or spotting between periods or bleeding after sex, and pain in the lower abdomen.

    Even though it doesn't always cause symptoms, untreated chlamydia can have very bad effects on your health.  Women can develop pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can lead to chronic pelvic pain and possibly infertility.  PID can also increase the chances of ectopic pregnancies - that is, pregnancies that develop outside of the uterus - which can be fatal. If you've had unprotected sex, but have no symptoms of chlamydia, you should still see your doctor about having a test just to make sure.

    Chlamydia is often diagnosed via a simple urine test, or a cotton swab which is used to check whether chlamydia bacteria are present at the vagina, cervix, anus or penis. Both the urine test and the cotton swab are sent to a laboratory for analysis, meaning that you will have a short wait for your results.

    If chlamydia is detected early, if can be treated with a single dose of antibiotics; however, if treatment has been delayed you may need to take a full course of antibiotics instead. You should always make sure you complete the full course for maximum effectiveness - and make sure you don't have unprotected sex during your treatment and for a week afterwards. If you've been diagnosed with chlamydia, your partner or partners should also be tested and get treatment if they need it.

  • Gonorrhoea

    Gonorrhoea is a bacterial infection which is spread through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex with an infected person. It affects both men and women and is the second most commonly reported STI in Australia.  It's sometimes called 'the clap'.

    Women who contract gonorrhoea frequently don't have any symptoms, which can lead to a delay in treatment. When symptoms are present, they can include a discharge from the vagina, and pain while urinating. Men are more likely to experience symptoms, and these usually appear about a week after infection. They can include a smelly yellow discharge from the penis, swollen testicles, and pain while urinating. A sore throat or discharge from the anus can also be symptoms of gonorrhoea in both men and women, particularly following unprotected oral or anal sex.

    Left untreated, gonorrhoea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease in women, and infertility in both men and women.

    Your doctor or health care worked will take a urine sample and a swab of the affected area to diagnose gonorrhoea. The samples are sent away to be tested, and you will be informed of your result after a short wait.

    Gonorrhea is treated with a course of antibiotics. You must complete the whole course for the treatment to be effective, and if you can't wait to complete the course of antibiotics before having sex again, you will need to wear a condom or use a dental dam.

  • Syphilis

    Syphilis is a bacterial infection that can affect both men and women. It's spread through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex, and also by intimate skin to skin contact with an infected person. The people with the highest risk of catching syphilis are men who have sex with other men, and people who travel to countries with high rates of syphilis and have sex there. Pregnant mothers who have syphilis can transmit the infection to their babies before or during birth.

    People who contract syphilis frequently have no symptoms at all to start with, which can lead to a delay in treatment. Later, you may develop a painless ulcer or ulcers in the genital area, anus or mouth. These can heal within 4 weeks. If you don't detect the ulcer, and the syphilis goes untreated, you may develop further symptoms including a rash all over your body, flu-like symptoms, and/or swollen glands.

    In the long term, untreated syphilis can lead to heart failure, blindness and brain damage. It can also cause problems with the spinal cord, blood vessels, skin and bones. Syphilis can also cause serious problems for unborn babies, so if you're pregnant and worried that you may have contracted syphilis, it's very important to get tested and treated.

    Syphilis is easily detectable through a blood test. If you have an ulcer, your doctor may also use a cotton swab to take a sample from it.

    Syphilis is treated with a course of antibiotics. Penicillin is the one most often used, but if you're allergic to penicillin you should tell your doctor, because other antibiotics are available.

  • HIV/AIDS

    Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is a virus - but unlike most other viruses, it can't be cleared from the body. Once you have HIV, you have it for life. HIV is present in the blood, semen and vaginal fluids of people who are infected, and if it goes untreated, within 10 years around 50% of HIV sufferers progress to the final stage of HIV, which is called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

    HIV and AIDS can affect everyone - men and women, gay and straight, young and old. HIV is transmitted by having unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex with an infected person, sharing contaminated needles to inject drugs, and receiving infected blood during blood transfusions (although blood donations in Australia are carefully screened and tested to reduce the risk of this). It can also be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy, birth and breast feeding.

    Many people experience who contract HIV experience no symptoms at all initially, which leads to delays in diagnosis and treatment, However, if you contract HIV you may start to experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, swollen lymph notes, sore throat and headaches 2 to 4 weeks after infection. Other symptoms can include a rash on the body, sores in the mouth or on the genitals, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. These symptoms generally last between 1 and 2 weeks. Because the symptoms of HIV are so diverse, it's quite hard to diagnose. If you suspect you may have contracted HIV, it's important that you ask your doctor for a HIV test immediately.

    If you have HIV you'll feel perfectly normal for most of the time. However, the virus will slowly attack your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections from which you'll find it harder and harder to recover. AIDS symptoms appear when HIV is at its most advanced. AIDS has many different symptoms, so if you want to find out more, check the World AIDS Day Australia websiteLink to World AIDS Day Australia website in a new window .

    If left untreated, HIV can progress into its final stages and become AIDS. When this happens, your immune system becomes extremely compromised and you begin to be much more vulnerable to infections and diseases.

    Your doctor or local sexual health clinic can diagnose HIV via a blood test. You can find further information about sexual health clinics on the support services page.

    While there is no cure for HIV/AIDS, there are many treatment options. If HIV is diagnosed and treated early, you can expect to have a near normal life expectancy, as antiretroviral therapy treatment can keep the virus in check and prevent it from developing into AIDS.

    If you believe you've been exposed to HIV, you can also take 'post-exposure prophylactic' drugs (PEPs). These decrease the risk of HIV infection, but only if you take them within 48 - 72 hours of the infection incident. You'll need to follow them up with blood tests three and six months after your potential exposure to HIV to be sure you've avoided contracting it. If you want to find out more, talk to your doctor or sexual health clinic. There is also a 24 hour PEP Hotline you can call on 1800 022 226

  • HPV

    Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a very common virus that affects both men and women - there are over 100 types of it! These different types are usually described as being either 'low-risk' or 'high-risk'. Most sexually active men and women will catch some form of HPV during their lives - because it's passed on via skin-to-skin contact rather than by bodily fluids, anyone who's had some sort of genital contact with their partner can catch genital HPV. While using condoms is always recommended as a way to avoid catching HPV, condoms don't offer total protection, as they don't cover the entire genital area.  Most HPV infections do not cause disease.

    Most HPV infections are harmless and don't cause any symptoms, as the body's immune system gets rid of the virus without any need of medical treatment. In some cases, however, the virus can persist and cause diseases of the genital area. These include (for low-risk types of the virus) genital warts, and (for high risk types) lesions and cancers of the cervix, vulva, vagina or anus.

    Men who have a persistent HPV infection are at risk of developing genital warts and some forms of anal cancer. Women with persistent HPV infections are also at risk of genital warts, along with cervical cancer and cancers of the vulva, vagina and anus.

    There are no tests to determine whether someone is infected with HPV. However, your doctor can easily diagnose genital warts via a visual inspection. They'll use a PAP smear to determine whether you have abnormal cells on the cervix caused by HPV which could develop into cervical cancer. Sexually active women should have PAP smears every two years.

    Genital warts can be treated with creams, freezing or lasers - talk to your doctor about the options so you can choose your preferred method. However, it's important to remember that removing the warts does not remove the virus. Your body's immune system usually takes care of this. It's also important to know that creams used to treat warts on other parts of the body are not suitable for genital warts, as they have different causes, so don't try to treat yourself by using over-the-counter remedies!

    Treatment for the more severe diseases caused by HPV - i.e the various forms of cancer - will depend on many different factors. If you have symptoms that point to cancer, your doctor will talk you through the treatments you'll need.

    Young Australians are now vaccinated against some of the riskier types of  HPV at schoolLink to further HPV information website in a new window . People who have not been vaccinated can access the vaccination through the University's Health Service and other health care providers, but there will be a cost, so contact your healthcare provider or UniCareLink to Unicare website in a new window for details.

  • Herpes

    Herpes is a common STI caused by the herpes simplex virus. Most people are familiar with the herpes simplex virus in its HSV 1 form - the common cold sore, which usually appears on the lips or face. However, there's also a form of herpes that appears on the genitals, and this is caused by the HSV 2 strain of the virus (although HSV 1 can also cause it during oral sex). Herpes is spread through skin to skin contact with an infected person during vaginal, anal or oral sex.  The vast majority of people infected with herpes are unaware that they have it, so it's always best to reduce the chances of contracting or spreading the infection by practising safe sex - wear a condom, and use a dental dam for oral sex.

    Many people with genital herpes experience no symptoms at all. When symptoms of genital herpes do appear they're referred to as an 'outbreak'. They can include a flu-like illness, small blisters around the genitals, small cracks in the skin, redness or rash, and pain and swelling in the genital area that are accompanied by pain and difficulty urinating.

    The symptoms of herpes can be not only painful, but also embarrassing and distressing. However, in the long term the body tends to eventually get rid of the infection, and outbreaks become less severe and less frequent as time goes by. It's possible to transfer genital herpes to other parts of your body - such as your eyes - if you touch a sore and then touch another part of your body, so you need to be extremely careful about 'hand hygiene' to avoid further infection.

    The major risk is with genital herpes is for pregnant mothers, who will need to inform their doctor if they know or suspect that they have the infection as it can be transmitted to the baby during birth.

    Your doctor will diagnose herpes by taking a swab of the affected area or a blood sample. You'll have a short wait before test results come back.

    While there is no cure for herpes, treatments are available to reduce the severity of an outbreak and/or to reduce their frequency. You can talk to your doctor to find out which ones are suitable for you.

 
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