Our resident medical expert shares his advice with Wikizine readers on sexual health risks.
In last month’s article we touched on sexual health. Now for those of you recently divorced or separated and in need of some ‘you-time’, sexual health may well be low down on the agenda. That said, at some point in the future this issue may well become relevant to you. As such, it cannot harm to know what you’re up against. As you may be aware sexual health is actually a huge topic but, for the purposes of this article, I aim to cover the ten most common (in the uk) sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
What is an STI?
An STI is an infection that can be passed from person to person when having sex and you can become infected by having vaginal, anal or oral sex.
These are small lumps which develop on the genitals and/or around the anus - and are often just called ‘genital warts’. They are caused by a virus called the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). However, most people infected with HPV do not develop visible warts. You can be a ‘carrier’ of the virus without realising it, and you may pass on the virus to others who then go on to develop warts. They can be treated with the topical application of chemicals or by freezing them off. Even if you think you only have warts, it is still important to have a full sexual health check as you could have picked something else up too, as that ‘something else’ may be symptomless.
This is the most common STD in the UK. It can cause vaginal discharge in women or discharge from the penis in men. However it may cause no symptoms whatsoever and can be ‘silent’. As such you can be infected with Chlamydia for months or even years without realising it. Even if you have no symptoms you can pass this infection on and complications can develop if it goes untreated eg pelvic inflammation or infertility in women. A short course of an antibiotic clears Chlamydia in most cases.
This is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Once you catch this virus it stays with you for life but tends to lie dormant without causing symptoms for most of the time. In fact, many people who have this virus never have symptoms so may be blissfully unaware they have the condition atall. If symptoms do occur, they can range from a mild soreness to many painful blisters on the vulva or penis and surrounding area. A first episode can last 2-3 weeks, but may be shorter. With some people recurrent episodes of symptoms can develop from time to time, but are usually less severe than the first attack. Genital herpetic infections are kind of similar to having ‘cold sores’ as the virus causing each is very similar. Generally speaking it is ‘type 1’HSV which affects the mouth and ‘type 2’ HSV which tends to affect the genitals. Antiviral medication can ease symptoms when they develop.
Symptoms of gonorrhoea can cause vaginal discharge in women or a penile discharge in men, but as with Chlamydia may also be symptomless. Again, even if you have no symptoms you can still pass on the infection and complications can develop if left untreated (such as pelvic infection and infertility in women). A short course of an antibiotic will usually cure it.
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency virus)
This is a virus which attacks the immune system and is most commonly passed on from sexual contact. Over time, the immune system weakens so that you cannot defend your body against various bacteria, viruses and other germs. This is when AIDS develops (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). There are various drugs available which can help your immune system to work effectively but the virus is as yet, incurable. Treatment and monitoring is thus life long.
This is a virus which primarily attacks the liver. The virus is mainly passed on through sexual contact, needle-sharing, or from an infected mother to her baby. The virus can cause an acute short term infection, which may or may not cause any symptoms. Following initial infection, some people go on to develop a persistent (or chronic) infection. Many people with chronic hepatitis B infection remain well, but can still pass the virus on to others (as they are ‘carriers’).
Again, this is a virus which primarily attacks the liver. It tends to be passed on through needle sharing but can still be acquired through sex, although this is a far less likely mode of transmission. Some people can clear this infection naturally. Other people can have persistent infection and may or may not have symptoms. After many years of infection, some people develop cirrhosis (a severe scarring of the liver) and some develop cancer of the liver. Treatment can be difficult but it can clear the infection in upto half of cases.
Many people have heard the term ‘crabs’. Well, the proper name is ‘pubic lice’. These are tiny insects about 1-2mm long and lay eggs which hatch into further lice after 7days. These lice attach very strongly to hairs and do not wash or brush off with normal cleaning; they also usually cause an intense itch. Pubic lice can be passed on through sex or even just from close bodily contact. Again, it is possible that you may have no symptoms even if infected, but may still pass on the lice to others. Treatment is usually with a lotion and tends to sort it out very effectively.
Syphilis is a condition which is actually becoming more common and is passed from person to person through direct contact with a syphilis sore. Syphilis sores occur mainly on the external genitals, vagina, anus, or in the rectum but can also occur on the lips and in the mouth. Transmission of the organism occurs during vaginal, anal, or oral sex - it cannot be spread through contact with toilet seats, doorknobs, swimming pools, hot tubs, bathtubs, shared clothing, or eating utensils.
Years ago, before the advent of antibiotics, many people used to die from this disease but nowadays thanks to penicillin and other drugs, people can be effectively treated, especially if it is caught in the early stages.
This germ can cause an infection which is not normally serious but symptoms can be most unpleasant usually involving a vaginal discharge in women, and a penile discharge in men. Again, some people infected will not have any symptoms but can still pass on the infection. A course of an appropriate antibiotic usually clears the infection.
Ok that’s it. Obviously this article is not exhaustive on sexual health, the primary aim being to raise awareness. It’s not a particularly light-hearted topic, but then again syphilis and such diseases never have been!
Ref: Web mentor library
Mr Ronald Daintith: Sexually Transmitted Infections & Genito-urinary medicine.
CDC Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Prevention