What are STIs?

STI stands for Sexually Transmitted Infection. It is any infection transmitted through sexual contact, caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites. HIV is one of the most commonly known STIs but there are many others.

Having unprotected sex is how most STIs are transmitted. An STI can be passed from one person to another through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal and oral sex. STIs can pass between men and women, and from women to women and men to men. Many STIs can be cured with antibiotics. Some, such as HIV, have no cure but can be treated to prevent them from getting worse or from passing it on to someone else.

You cannot tell by looking at someone (including yourself) whether they have an STI, so it’s essential to get tested or screened regularly. Many people may at first feel fine and do not show symptoms when they have an STI. Using condoms with water-based lube protects not only against HIV but also many other STIs.

If you think you have an STI, the earlier you’re tested, the sooner treatment can be given if it’s needed. Untreated STIs can affect your health in many ways.

Some of the most common STIs are:

Hepatitis A
Hepatitis A is a liver infection that’s spread by a virus in faeces (poo). It is spread mainly through contaminated food or poor hand-washing, but also passes on easily through sex, including oral-anal sex (“rimming”) and giving oral sex after anal sex. Gay and bisexual men with multiple partners are particularly at risk. Symptoms of hepatitis A can appear up to eight weeks after sex and include tiredness and nausea. Hepatitis A is not usually life-threatening, and most people make a full recovery within a couple of months.

Men can avoid getting hepatitis A by:

  • washing hands after sex (ideally buttocks, groin and penis too)
  • changing condoms between anal and oral sex
  • using a barrier (such as a condom cut into a square) for rimming
  • not sharing sex toys

Hepatitis B
Hepatitis B is a viral infection that causes inflammation of the liver. It often doesn’t cause any noticeable symptoms but can lead to a persistent infection. This can eventually cause severe liver disease, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with an infected person’s blood or body fluids.

Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is a viral infection that causes inflammation of the liver. It often doesn’t cause any noticeable symptoms, but can lead to a persistent infection. This can eventually cause serious liver disease, including cirrhosis and liver cancer. It is spread through contact with an infected person’s blood or body fluids. Hepatitis C can be treated and is curable in many cases.

Gonorrhoea (‘the clap’) and Chlamydia
Both these STIs are bacterial infections of the urethra, rectum or throat. Gonorrhoea and Chlamydia can cause stinging when urinating or the feeling that you want to urinate but can’t. It’s passed on through anal, oral or vaginal sex with an infected person.  There may be a discharge from the penis, or pain in the testicles (although chlamydia can be symptom-free). Both STIs are treated with antibiotics.

Genital herpes
Genital herpes is a viral infection. Symptoms can include painful blisters and ulcers on or around the penis or anus, although some men have no symptoms. The virus remains in the body and can cause recurrent episodes of blisters. Genital herpes can be passed on through oral sex with someone with a cold sore around or in their mouth, or by close, skin-to-skin genital contact with someone who has genital herpes. Your doctor or healthcare worker can prescribe pills or a cream to help when herpes symptoms flare up.

Syphilis
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that causes a painless ulcer, usually in the genital area. The ulcer will disappear on its own, but other symptoms may appear, such as a rash on the body and swollen glands. In its early stages, syphilis is very infectious and can be passed on by close skin contact during sex. If it’s left untreated for years, it can spread to the brain or other parts of the body and cause serious, long-term problems. Treatment is with antibiotic injections or tablets.

Genital warts
This is the most common viral infection that appears a few weeks or months after sex with an infected person. It can cause pinhead-sized growths, mostly on or around the head of the penis but also in and around the anus. The sooner warts are treated, the easier they are to deal with. You can’t treat genital warts with the same cream you use for warts on the hands. A doctor will freeze them or use a cream to remove them.

Get tested
If you have any of these symptoms or worried you may have an STI, speak to your GP or healthcare worker. Getting tested regularly is a good idea to ensure you have a healthy sex life.