STIs 101: The Symptoms, Diagnoses & Treatment Options

Post-pandemic, it would seem there’s been a flurry of activity – in fact, statistics show an STI is diagnosed in England every four minutes. With many symptoms going undetected – if there are any at all – many of us are left in the dark when it comes to spotting the early warning signs. Plus, it’s important to know when to seek professional treatment as some infections can cause long-term damage. To clear up some of the main need-to-knows – including the preventative measures worth taking – we asked pharmacist and health expert, Abbas Kanani, to share her insights.
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UPDATED JULY 2021

CHLAMYDIA

“With around 229,000 cases diagnosed every year in England alone, chlamydia is one of the most common STIs, yet testing has been on the decline for the last couple of years. Chlamydia is often described as a ‘silent’ infection due to the fact around 70% of women and 50% of men with the infection don’t have any obvious signs or symptoms. It’s caused by a type of bacteria – known as ‘Chlamydia Trachomatis’ and due to its lack of symptoms, it often spreads unknowingly. It’s also worth noting you can contract chlamydia from your partner, and this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve cheated –STIs don’t appear right away and there’s usually an incubation period. With this in mind, you may not know that you have an STI like chlamydia until months or even years have passed.”
 

How Do You Get It?

“You can catch it by having unprotected sexual intercourse with somebody who is carrying the infection, or by coming into contact with their genital fluid. For example, genital fluids being ingested, or even coming into contact with your eyes. You can also get chlamydia by sharing sex toys with somebody who has the infection, or if your genitals come in to contact with an infected individual’s – even if there’s no penetration.”
 

What Are The Symptoms?

“As mentioned above, some people are symptomless, but there are some key things to look out for and they differ between men and women. For women, your symptoms can include painful urination, vaginal discharge, pain in the lower stomach or pelvis, pain while having sex and bleeding after sexual intercourse. For men, painful urination is still a symptom, but so is discharge from the tip of the penis that is cloudy and white, as well as itching or burning around the urethra. If you do develop symptoms, these will usually appear around one to three weeks after contracting the infection, though you may not realise for several months later. Symptoms can disappear, but this doesn’t mean the infection has – you should avoid any sexual activity until you’ve been tested, as well as inform any recent sexual partners, so they can get a test, too.”

How Do You Treat It?

“There are currently two antibiotics available to treat chlamydia. Firstly, Doxycyline. This treatment is to be taken twice daily for seven days. Research suggests it’s 100% effective in treating chlamydia. The second one is Azitrhomycin. This is taken as a single dose only once to cure the infection. Studies for this shows it has a 97% success rate and often it’s preferred by most due to fewer side effects.”

Chlamydia is often described as a ‘silent’ infection due to the fact around 70% of women and 50% of men with the infection don’t have any obvious signs or symptoms.

GENITAL HERPES

“Herpes are caused by a virus known as the ‘herpes simplex virus.’ This is categorised into two types: HSV-1 and HSV-2. The main difference between the two is the location in which they appear on your body. Most HSV-1 infections are oral herpes, which means they’re transmitted through oral-to-oral contact.”
 

How Do You Get It?

“Through vaginal or anal sex or other genital skin-to-skin contact. However, genital herpes are not caused by the same virus that causes warts on your hands or verrucas on the feet. It’s important to keep yourself as healthy as you can because a strong immune system can help suppress the herpes simplex virus.”
 

What Are The Symptoms?

“Not everyone has the same symptoms with genital herpes. In fact, some people who have the herpes virus may never have a single attack, but they are still able to pass the infection on. That said, it’s more likely for herpes to transmit when active – usually at the start or end of an outbreak. Symptoms to look out for include small blisters around the genitals, anus or buttocks which burst and leave open, red sores. Likewise, burning, itching or a tingling sensation around your genitals should always be monitored, as should pain on urination.”
 

How Do You Treat It?

“You should get tested for genital herpes as soon as you develop any of the above symptoms. You can get tested at your local GUM clinic, or you can order a test kit from a reputable online source. The test involves swabbing a lesion, which is then analysed at a lab. While there is no cure for herpes, certain anti-viral treatments – including aciclovir and valaciclovir – can relieve the symptoms. To avoid spreading the virus, you should wait until your symptoms have cleared up, as this is when you’re most contagious.”

GONORRHOEA

“Gonorrhoea – which was previously known as ‘the clap’ – is a sexually transmitted infection that’s caused by bacteria called ‘Neisseria Gonorrhoea’ or ‘Gonococcus.’ Often, it comes with quite obvious symptoms – for those that get them – so it’s somewhat easier to treat early on.”
 

How Do You Get It?

“It can infect both men and women and cause infections in the genitals, rectum and even the throat. While anyone can get it, it’s most common in those aged between 15 and 25. This is because it’s transmitted through those who are very sexually active. Often, it’s passed on via contact with the penis, vagina, mouth, or anus of an infected partner. Sex isn’t always the cause – you can potentially spread it from mother to baby during childbirth, too.”
 

What Are The Symptoms?

“The main symptoms include a thick, green or yellow discharge from the penis or vagina that’s unmissable. You can also get severe pain when peeing, as well as bleeding in between your periods if you’re a woman. The tricky part is women are more likely to experience symptoms than men. This is because around one in ten men won’t experience any symptoms at all, so it’s important you get tested after having any unprotected sex.”
 

How Do You Treat It?

“Gonorrhoea is treated with a single antibiotic injection and a single antibiotic tablet. After treatment, most of your symptoms should ease within a few days, so it’s relatively straightforward.”

SYPHILIS

“Compared to other STIs, the number of people diagnosed with syphilis is relatively low (around four people in every 100,000) although this number has increased by more than 600% in the last ten years. A bacterial infection, it’s usually caught by having sex with someone who’s infected.”
 

How Do You Get It?

“Both men and women can get syphilis. You can be infected by direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal or oral sex. The sores can be found on the penis, vagina or anus, rectum, or on the lips and in your mouth.”
 

What Are The Symptoms?

“Like others on this list, unfortunately, symptoms aren’t always obvious, and they can disappear, but again, you’ll remain infected until treated. If you do get symptoms, you can expect small, painless sores or ulcers that come up around the penis, vagina, anus and mouth. A blotchy red rash may also affect your hands or soles of the feet, while small skin growths aren’t uncommon around the vulva in women, or around the anus in men. White patches in the mouth, tiredness, headaches, joint pains and a temperature – especially when all present together – should be investigated, too.”
 

How Do You Treat It?

“Early diagnosis is key with syphilis. When it’s caught early, you can cure it much better. The usual method of treatment is penicillin which is an antibiotic medication that kills the syphilis-causing organisms. If you’re allergic to penicillin, your pharmacist or GP will prescribe you a similar antibiotic, or penicillin desensitisation.”

Gonorrhoea can infect both men and women, but it's most common in those aged between 15 and 25. This is because it’s transmitted through those who are very sexually active.

HIV/AIDS

“HIV is a virus that damages cells in your immune systems and weakens your body’s ability to fight off infection and disease. AIDS is the name which is used to describe life-threatening illnesses that occur when your immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus.” 
 

How Do You Get It?

“Both men and women can contract HIV and there are several people who are more at risk. This includes those with a current, or previous, partner with HIV, those from an area with high HIV rarest, those who engage in chemsex (drugs which enhance sex), and those who have unprotected sex and share syringes. Shared sex toys are also a risk if someone has used one as is infected with HIV. Likewise, those who receive blood transfusions that don’t receive regular, strong screening for HIV, and healthcare workers who accidentally prick themselves with infected needles – though this is deemed low risk.” 
 

What Are The Symptoms?

“The symptoms are short, flu-like illnesses which occur two to six weeks after infection and typically last for a week or two. Once these symptoms disappear, you may not experience any for years, though the virus will continue to attack your immune system. This makes it hard to know if you’re infected, so always get tested if you think you’re at risk.”

How Do You Treat It?

“HIV is treated with antiretroviral medicines. These work by stopping the virus replicating inside your body, so it gives your immune system time to repair itself and prevent any further damage. These are tablets which need to be taken daily.”

A Word On Living With HIV…

“If you’re living with HIV, you must ensure you take the treatment listed above. This will reduce the risk of passing HIV onto others. You will be encouraged by your doctor to regularly exercise, eat a healthy diet, stop smoking and have yearly flu jabs to minimise the risk of contracting serious illness. It’s worth noting that when you don’t take the treatment provided, your immune system will suffer and become seriously damaged, increasing your risk of life-threatening illnesses such as cancer. If you plan to have a baby, you should talk to your GP for advice as there’s a small risk of passing HIV onto your child.” 

GENITAL WARTS

“Genital warts – different to genital herpes – are a common, sexually transmitted infection. They often appear as small, fleshy growths or as bumps within the genital region. It’s true that nearly all sexually active people will become infected with at least one type of human papillomavirus (HPV) – the virus that causes genital warts – at some point during their lives.” 
 

How Do You Get It?

“Passed on by vaginal and anal sex, genital warts are easy to transmit. You can also pass them on via oral sex, and the sharing of sex toys, too. Both men and women can catch them – even from skin-to-skin contact. It’s not just penetrative sex that causes these warts to form.” 
 

What Are The Symptoms?

“The symptoms are often more painless lumps or growths around the penis, vagina or anus. Bleeding or itching from your genitals is common, too, as is a change to your normal flow in urine – for example, if you start to flow sideways. If this doesn’t go away, see a GP or healthcare provider immediately.” 

How Do You Treat It? 

“The type of treatment depends on how severe your warts are. The GP will discuss this with you when you see them for your appointment. A cream or liquid is the most common type of treatment, and these can usually be applied to your warts a few times a week for several weeks forward. You may experience side effects, including irritation, soreness and a burning sensation, but this is common. If the warts become more severe, your GP may discuss the option of having them cut, burned or lasered off. Freezing is an option, but this can cause soreness.” 
 
 
For more information, check out the official NHS advice, and Chemistclick.co.uk
  
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