Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections transmitted through sexual contact with other infected persons. They are caused by viruses & bacteria and lead to diseases such as gonorrhoea (formerly, ‘The Clap’), genital herpes, chlamydia, HIV/AIDs, human papilloma virus (genital warts), and syphilis.
A certain stigma remains in Ireland concerning sexually transmitted infections, which is not only a detriment to public health as persons with active but undetected infections can pass on the infection through sexual intercourse, but also poses a danger to the individual who harbours an untreated infection. The long term effects of untreated STIs in females is pelvic inflammatory disease, cervical cancer, and can lead to infertility; in males, the long term effects are inflammation of the spermatic cord and can also lead to infertility.
Far from ‘It Follows’, STIs are not the harbinger of a certain death sentence in the form of a persistent demonic force that is transmitted post-sexual intercourse. There are no irreducible Sexually Transmitted Demons in real life. STIs, however, can be a danger to the reproductive and greater bodily health of the individual, but for the most part are readily treatable provided they are detected. Sexual health is valuable to all persons who wish to engage in sexual intercourse and reproduce at any point in life – it is imperative that we maintain standards of care when it comes to this facet of our health.
Being vigilant of the symptoms of STIs is important to catching them but is not always a failsafe way to determine their presence: 80% of STIs are symptomless. Should they occur, symptoms include abnormal vaginal or penile discharge, pain when urinating or other symptoms of a UTI, bleeding in between periods in women, abdominal pain in women, testicular pain in men, painless sores (or chancre) on the external genitalia, or even a short flu-like illness two to six weeks after infection as with HIV. At present, 90% of people in Ireland claim to have never had an STI; confounding this figure are the 61% of Irish people who say they have never had a sexual health check including STI screening, revealing perhaps a misinformed assurance of our own invincibility. This statistic is concurrent with an increase in the incidence of STIs in Ireland recently reported by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.
There are certain important elements that increase the risk of STI transmission including engaging in unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex for any length of time, and sharing vibrators or other sex toys that haven’t been washed or covered with a new condom each time they’re used. People at high risk include people who frequently change sexual partners or who don’t use a barrier method of contraception. It is important to realise that STIs do not only affect the genitals but occur in the eyes, mouth, rectum, and throat. STI occurrence is greatest among those aged less than 25 and men who have sex with men (MSM).
Reducing the risk of contracting an STI is easy but requires preparation. Barrier methods of contraception prevent mixing of vaginal fluids and seminal discharge where the bacteria predominate and include both male and female condoms and dams (a thin latex square held over the vaginal or anal area during oral sex). It is recommended to use male or female condoms during vaginal sex, or male condoms during anal sex. Using a condom or a dam during oral sex can protect from STIs occurring in the eyes, mouth, and throat. In addition, not sharing sex toys or washing and covering them with a new condom each use protects against contracting STIs.
Most STIs including chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhoea can be treated and cured with simple antibiotic courses. Viral infections causing HIV and genital herpes are chronic but medical progress has facilitated the increased control of these disease entities with antiviral drugs. Since the majority of people experience a symptomless STI initially, it is recommended that you get an STI check up each time you change sexual partner or engage in unprotected sex.
Getting tested and treated for STIs is straightforward and confidential and involves little more than a blood test, urine sample, swab of the genitals (usually self-administered), and a quick examination of the genitals. Yet still, a visit to a sexual health clinic is unpalatable to most it seems. LetsGetChecked is an Irish start-up that has launched a discreet and convenient solution to STI testing, “providing access to fast, accurate and anonymous healthcare testing,” (Peter Foley, CEO LetsGetChecked). LetsGetChecked offers the option of STI home-testing kits to consumers and handles the entire testing process, delivering the results back to the consumer within two days. The unique aftercare protocol of the company involves a nursing support team which provides confidential advice on the recommended course of treatment for those who have tested positive for any infections.
A list of sexual health clinics in Ireland is available at: www.yoursexualhealth.ie
For more information about STIs and protecting yourself see NHS Choices: http://www.nhs.uk/pages/home.aspx