Just like our physical and mental health and well being, we need to take measures to be responsible and protect ourselves when it comes to our sexual health.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are common and can have serious consequences for our long term physical and mental health. They’re treatable when detected but prevention is better than cure where possible. Common infections like chlamydia and gonorrhoea in women can lead to infection tracking upwards in to the pelvis leading to a condition known as Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) which can result in chronic pelvic pain, pain during intercourse, poor fertility, difficulty conceiving, and ectopic pregnancies (when a pregnancy implants in a tube instead of the womb). HPV infection increases risks of some cancers like cervical cancer. HPV is sometimes tested for on smears which are abnormal but hopefully, it’ll be checked for on all smears soon.
In men, infection can result in painful discharge, infection of the epididymis (a tube located at the back of the testicle) or prostate infection, all of which can be quite uncomfortable.
The most common infections are chlamydia, gonorrhoea, HPV, genital warts and herpes infection. Hepatitis B, Syphilis and HIV are also important STI’s to consider. HIV infection can lead to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) which means the immune system is weakened and the body can’t ward off simple infections which can make patients very ill. HIV infection is more common than you think so always be mindful if you’re in a new relationship. Today HIV is treatable with medication and patients who take such medication often have such low “viral loads” and lead normal lives. But, as I said, prevention is preferable to treatment/ cure.
It’s important to note that some STI’s can often be silent and have no symptoms at all which is why it’s so important to get regularly tested if you’re sexually active with a new partner.
At risk groups
There are some people that are more at risk of getting STI’s than others. It’s important for us to be aware of these groups so we can help prevent infection where possible. Any sexually active person who has sex with a new partner is at risk. Teenagers are also known to be more at risk, possibly due to embarrassment about using condoms and lack of awareness about STI’s. Gay men and transgender men and women are also known to be higher risk, as are sex workers.
Some sexual behaviours are known to be riskier too. High-risk sexual practices are sex without a condom, multiple partners, and having sex after the use of alcohol or drugs, which can lead to disinhibition and risky behaviour. If you are in any of the above-mentioned groups, chat to your GP about your sexual health and what you can do to reduce your risk. Or if you’re close to anyone you think may be vulnerable, start the conversation with them and advise them to get checked.
Using condoms is one of the most important measures for protecting against infection. Vaccinations also play an important role. The HPV vaccine is available free for all girls across Ireland. It can be sought privately by older women too. It’s available to men in sexual health centres too.
Another vital component of STI prevention is identifying partners of individuals diagnosed with any STI. Ideally, they should be evaluated by a doctor and treated accordingly. Sometimes, depending on the circumstances, the doctor may deem it appropriate to give an antibiotic without seeing the partner but it’s preferable for the partner to be assessed and screened fully.
Getting tested is easy. Your GP can do it. Chlamydia and gonorrhoea can be tested with a sample of urine. Testing for Hep B, HIV and syphilis requires a blood sample. At the moment, as I mentioned above, testing for HPV isn’t routinely done during smear testing, but it is done on any smear where there’s concern about abnormal cells.
Treatment varies from case to case and depends on what STI is being treated and what stage it’s caught at. The good news is that the vast majority of these diseases are treatable and solvable when caught on time. Genital warts can be treated with topical creams. Herpes infection requires a course anti-viral medication. Chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis can be treated by a course of antibiotics. HIV and Hepatitis B are readily treatable also but require more specialised medications.
Don’t let embarrassment get the better of you when seeking advice or treatment when it comes to your sexual health. Doctors see and hear about it every day. Sex is a normal part of adult life. A healthy sex life is an important component of our overall health. Don’t be embarrassed speaking to your doctor. Your doctor will be proud of you for taking action and being proactive.
We’re here and ready to help and advise you in whatever way we can.