Sexually Transmitted Infections
The information contained on this page was written by SHINE and New Croft Sexual Health staff.
STIs are infections that can be passed from one person with an infection to another person through sexual contact. The sexual contact can be through genital skin to skin contact, through oral sex, using or sharing sex toys or genital contact with fingers, because the infections are present on genital skin and/or in sexual fluids.
Certain conditions are sexually transmissible but not necessarily sexually acquired.
STI’s – Signs, Symptoms and Treatments.
Very often STIs will go without any noticeable symptoms. However, if you have an STI, you may experience some of the following symptoms:
- Develop lumps or bumps
- Increased or smelly discharge
- Different colour discharge, e.g bloody, green, grey & watery
- Burning sensation
- Bleeding after sex or inter menstrual bleeding
These could be inside your vagina or anus or on the skin of your genital area. you could also have lower abdominal pain.
If you do have any of these symptoms you should see a doctor or nurse (see our sexual health services page for your local sexual health clinic). Because some women don't experience any symptoms it is recommended that women get tested regularly.
There are many different STI’s, here we cover the most common:
- Genital Herpes
- Genital Warts
- Hepatitis A/B/C
- Pubic Lice (crabs)
Chlamydia is a STI caused by small bacteria that live inside human cells. It is the most common STI in people under 25. Left untreated, Chlamydia can permanently damage the sexual organs leading to infertility in women and in men.
Chlamydia is called the ‘silent’ disease as around 70-80% of women and 50% of men do not experience any noticeable symptoms. Because of this lots of people do not know they have got it.
- Symptoms in women:
There may be pain when having sex, bleeding between periods or after sex.
Chlamydia can be easily diagnosed through a ‘pee in a pot’ test or having a swab taken from inside the vagina, once diagnosed it can be treated with antibiotics. Under 25s can get a free, confidential chlamydia test through the National Chlamydia Screening Programme or check the local website: www.checkyourbits.org People over 25 can visit their GP or a local Sexual Health Service to arrange a test. You can also collect a ‘Pee in the pot’ kit from SHINE for free.
Genital herpes is an infection of the genital skin (below the waist and between the legs) that is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). HSV lives in nerve endings and is the same as cold sores on the face. HSV can be easily passed from person to person by close, direct skin to skin contact. Genital herpes is passed on by having sex with some one who already has it. Genital herpes is a long-term (chronic) condition.
At least 80% of people who carry the virus don’t know that they’ve been infected because there are often few or no symptoms to begin with. Other people may develop symptoms very soon after getting the infection. These usually start as an area of small blisters that may be itchy and then burst leaving the area sore and uncomfortable. Sometimes it can be impossible to pee (more likely to occur in women than men) resulting in the need for a hospital admission. Even if someone with genital herpes doesn’t have any symptoms, it’s possible for them to pass the condition on to a sexual partner as the virus is present in the skin cells (that are shed) in the area where the infection has been.
When herpes is first diagnosed, medication can be given to treat it along with painkillers if necessary. Some people will only ever have one outbreak although the virus will still remain in their body, others may have further outbreaks. For others the virus starts up again, causing a further outbreak of herpes. The symptoms of genital herpes also tend not to happen as often and not be as bad each time someone has the condition. If an outbreak happens more than 6 times in 12 months you or if you prefer the sexual health service can talk to your GP about treating the virus with medication, usually over 6 months, in an attempt to reduce the amount of outbreaks.
Genital warts are the result of a viral skin infection that is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). Genital warts are usually painless and are not a serious threat to a person’s health. However, they can look unpleasant and make you feel unhappy or upset. Genital warts can be spread during sex, and by sharing sex toys. You do not need to have penetrative sex to pass the infection on because HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact. Condoms do not provide complete protection because it is possible for the skin around your genital area (that is not covered by your partners condom) to become infected. HPV is most likely to be passed on to others when warts are present, although it is still possible to pass the virus on before the warts have developed and after they have disappeared.
Genital warts are small fleshy growths, bumps or skin changes that appear on or around the genital or anal area. It can take up to a year for symptoms to develop after getting an infection, so if you are in a relationship and you get genital warts, it does not necessarily mean that your partner has been having sex with other people! Warts may grow in clusters and cause pain when you are having sex.
Treatments for warts usually work well. Several treatments are available, such as using medicated creams and freezing the warts (cryotherapy). However it is important to know that many treatments can take up to three months before they work properly.
Gonorrhoea is a STI caused by bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoea or gonococcus. It used to be known as “the clap”. Gonorrhoea is easily passed between people through unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex, and sharing vibrators or other sex toys, that have not been washed or covered with a new condom each time they are used. Anyone who has sex with another person can get gonorrhoea, however it is more common with people who change partners more often and people who do not use a condom when having sex.
HEPATITIS A, B and C
You get Hepatitis when there is inflammation (swelling ) of the liver, often caused by a virus. The three main types of hepatitis are described here:
Caused by the Hepatitis A virus, it’s the most common type of viral hepatitis. It is more common in countries with poor cleanliness and sanitation (sewage and rubbish). Hepatitis A is caught by putting something in your mouth that has been contaminated with shit containing the virus, so can commonly be transmitted through rimming (licking the bum hole for pleasure) for example.
Caused by the Hepatitis B virus, it’s present in body fluids such as blood, saliva, semen and vaginal fluid. It can be passed from person to person through unprotected sex or by sharing needles or drug injecting equipment, for example. Hepatitis B is not very common in the UK: about one in 1,000 people are thought to have the virus.
Caused by the Hepatitis C virus, it’s present in the blood and, to a much lesser extent, the saliva and semen or vaginal fluid of an infected person. It is particularly concentrated in the blood, so it is usually caught through blood-to-blood contact. The most common way you can become infected is by sharing contaminated needles or drug taking equipment.
There are often no symptoms for Hepatitis A, B, or C, which is why it is important to get checked regularly. Symptoms, if you get any, can include feeling tired, aches, nausea, being sick, pissing darker pee than usual and being jaundiced (yellowish skin tone). Blood tests are needed to confirm if you have an infection, which type it is and whether the infection has cleared itself or needs further investigation.
Hep A: In certain parts of the UK sexual health services will offer vaccination against Hepatitis A, if there have been a lot of people infected locally.
Hep B: A course of vaccinations, which can prevent getting the virus,and is available from sexual health services.
Hep C: There is currently no vaccine to prevent Hepatitis C. If you show signs of Hepatitis you are most likely to be referred to a Liver Unit at a hospital where more tests will take place and you may be offered drugs that fight the virus, these can clear the infection for about half of those who are infected.
Pubic lice (phthirus pubis), also known as ‘crabs’, are tiny blood-sucking insects. They live in coarse human body hair, most commonly pubic hair, and cause itching and red spots. The lice can also be found in the eyelashes or eyebrows, hair on the abdomen or back, and facial hair, such as beards or moustaches if left untreated. Adult pubic lice are about 2mm long and are grey-brown in colour. They are caught through close contact with someone who has them. The most common way is during sex. There is not enough evidence to say whether pubic lice can be passed through items such as bedding or towels, although some experts think that it might be possible. Only humans get pubic lice, you can get them at any age but they are seen most in young adults.
Pubic lice can cause itching to the infested area and lay egg sacks at the base of pubic hair which have a silver or shiny appearance.
Pubic lice can usually be successfully treated with insecticide medicines available over-the-counter in most chemists, or from a GP or sexual health service. You should tell any current sexual partners and any partners from the past three months as they may need to be treated. If pubic lice are caught through sex, it is best that tests for STI’s also be done.
Scabies is a skin condition caused by tiny insects called Sarcoptes scabiei, which burrow into the skin. It can be spread through prolonged skin-to-skin contact (such as sleeping) with someone who is infected and sexual contact with someone. Scabies can also be passed on through sharing clothing, towels and bedding with someone who is infected. However, this is less likely than getting the infection through skin-to-skin contact. They feed using their mouthparts and front legs to dig into the outer layer of the skin. They eat tissue and fluids as they burrow. As they feed within the skin layer, they burrow at a rate of about 0.5mm a day. The females lay two to three eggs a day inside the burrow. After three to four days, the baby insects (larvae) hatch from the eggs and travel to the surface of the skin where they lie in shallow pockets before becoming adult insects. Scabies like warm places on the skin, such as skin folds, between the fingers, under fingernails or around the buttock or breast creases. They can also hide under watchstraps or bracelets, and in the skin on the finger under rings. Crusted scabies is when there are insects that have had lots of babies that have spread; this can affect older people and those with a lowered immune system (the body’s natural defence against illness and infection).
Scabies is not usually a serious condition, but the itching can be unpleasant and leave you feeling low or depressed. Visible signs can be small ‘silver’ threads that you may see that run across the skin. It can take up to eight weeks before you have any symptoms.
Itching that is caused by scabies can usually be effectively treated using specialist skin creams, some of these need to be re-applied over 24 hours and may need to be put on the body again a few days later. The itching can persist for several days after treatment. Scabies can lead to another skin infection if the skin becomes irritated and inflamed through excessive itching and scratching. If this happens you need to see a GP or visit a sexual health clinic.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that is usually passed on through sex. Three stages of disease Syphilis may not always be seen in its three stages, not everyone will have symptoms.
Stage 1 (primary syphilis).
Symptoms of syphilis can be painful and highly infectious, they can range from one to lots of look-alike sores on the genitals or sometimes on the mouth/tongue/cheek/gums. If somebody else comes into close contact with the sore, for example during sex such as oral sex or vaginal/anal sex, they can also become infected. The sore lasts two to six weeks before disappearing.
Stage 2 (secondary syphilis).
Secondary symptoms, such as a rash on the palms of the hands/soles of the feet, then develop. These symptoms may disappear within a few weeks, after which you experience a hidden (latent) phase with no symptoms, which can last for years. Due to being in the body untreated for years, syphilis can then progress to its third, most dangerous stage.
Stage 3 (tertiary syphilis).
At this stage, it can cause serious damage to the body.
The first and second stages are when you can most easily pass it to infect other people. Symptoms can include: swelling in your lymph glands (small organs found throughout the body, such as in the neck, groin or armpit), a non-itchy skin rash appearing anywhere on the body, but commonly on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet, tiredness and headaches. Less common symptoms include: fever, weight loss, patchy hair loss and joint pains. In the middle (latent) phase (and usually around two years after becoming infected), syphilis cannot be passed onto others but you can still get symptoms.
If found early, syphilis can be easily treated with antibiotics, usually penicillin injections. If it is not treated, syphilis can progress to a more dangerous form of the disease and cause serious conditions such as stroke, paralysis, blindness or even death.
Thrush is caused by an overgrowth of yeast called candida. Symptoms may include vulval and vaginal itching, pain and soreness on penetration, burning when passing urine, and a thick, white discharge.
It's possible for women to transmit thrush during sex through touching and sharing sex toys. Thrush can be treated with medicated cream, pessaries and tablets, which can be bought from a chemist. Go to your GP if your symptoms persist.