Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that can pass from one person to another during unprotected sex. Vaginal, anal and oral sex are all sexual activities where STIs can be contracted. Some of these infections are present in body fluids such as sperm, vaginal fluids and blood. See your healthcare provider if you have had unprotected sex with someone that you suspect may have a sexually transmitted disease.
Sexually transmitted diseases sometimes may show no symptoms. At other times, the following are common symptoms that you may notice:
- In men: discharge from the penis, pain during sex, swollen testicles, painful sores on the penis, rashes that appear only on the penis, bloody and painful urination.
- In women: discharge from the vagina, irregular menstrual cycle, pain during sex, rashes around the vagina opening, and sores around the mouth or vagina.
- HIV: symptoms vary from person to person and may include fever, sore throat, and fatigue.
- Syphilis: skin rash, sores on the mouth and/or on the sex organs.
- Chlamydia: painful urination, discharge from penis or vagina, and swollen testicles.
- Gonorrhoea: painful urination, pain in joints, and yellow, white, or green coloured discharge from the penis.
Generally, you contract STIs through unprotected sexual contact. The germs that cause STIs are passed from person-to-person through blood, semen, vaginal fluids, skin contact or other body fluids. These germs can also be transferred from mother-to-child or through unsafe medical procedures (e.g. a doctor not using properly sterilised tools).
Your chance of getting these infections increases once you have one or more of the following risk factors:
- You have sex without wearing condoms (unprotected sex). Condoms must be used properly, all the time, for them to protect you.
- Having multiple sex partners or a partner who has multiple partners.
- You use hair clippers, injection needles, or razor blades that are not new or do not belong to you.
- You use hard drugs or alcohol. These substances may make you perform unsafe sex practices.
- The risk of an infection is higher in unborn babies whose mothers have an infection.
- Having previous sexually transmitted infections puts you at a high risk of getting another infection.
Visit your healthcare provider immediately when you notice that:
- You have had unprotected sex with someone whose status you do not know. Or you have sex with someone you suspect has a sexually transmitted infection.
- You have pain when urinating, discharge from your sex organ and/or sores on your sex organ.
- You are pregnant.
In most cases, your healthcare provider will recommend either blood tests or other diagnostic tests. In resource-limited environments like Nigeria, your healthcare provider can initiate treatment without a test. They do this by identifying your symptoms, matching common infections in your locality and then treating you according to the Government-issued guidelines.
You can protect yourself from STIs by practising safe sex or avoiding sexual contact. Using a condom (or dental dam for oral sex) correctly during every sexual contact, remaining with one uninfected partner, and not making sex decisions when under the influence of alcohol or recreational drugs. Always communicate and insist on practising safe sex.
Some STIs can be prevented with vaccination, like the human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis A and B. In people at high risk of infection with hepatitis, like men who have sex with men and injected drug users, vaccination is recommended. The HPV vaccine can be given to boys and girls up to the age of 12years.
The following tips can help you treat or manage sexually transmitted infections:
- Ensure you use latex (male or female) condoms all through sexual intercourse. It works extremely well, protecting you from infections when used properly. Use condoms, if needed, with water-based lubricants only, don't rub petroleum jelly or other lotions on them.
- Use a dental dam or condom during oral sex to prevent transferring infections through the mouth.
- In people with latex sensitivity, you can use condoms made of other materials.
- Wash before and after sexual intercourse. This practice, combined with other safe sex practices, can help prevent infections.
- You and your new partner should take tests before starting a new sex life.
- Get tested and vaccinated against hepatitis B.
- Avoid taking hard drugs or alcohol as that may make you perform unsafe sex practices.
- HIV/AIDS: your healthcare provider may prescribe medicines like highly active antiretroviral drugs (like Tenofovir, Lamivudine, Efavirenz, etc.) to slow or halt the disease's progress.
- Gonorrhoea: antibiotics can be used to treat you and your partner. Importantly, the organism causing gonorrhoea is becoming resistant to available antibiotics, which is a global health problem. Use antibiotics only when prescribed, and always use a condom during sex.
- Syphilis: your healthcare provider will recommend an antibiotic (likely penicillins). Symptoms usually disappear within a day or two of treatment but completing your medicines is the only way to prevent resistance and a more serious infection.
- Chlamydia: antibiotics can treat this. Both sex partners should take treatment.
- Hepatitis: vaccines exist for hepatitis and can prevent you from getting infected. Treatment is often long-term, and complications are severe.
Practice safe sex by using condoms properly and getting tested regularly. Avoid having unprotected sex with someone that has, or you suspect has an infection. Do not feel embarrassed to get condoms from pharmacies. Reach out to your healthcare provider on safe sex practices you can do, and they will be willing to educate and provide contraceptive options. If you or a loved one has a sexually transmitted disease, do not make it affect your life because it is an infection like any other. Lastly, do not stigmatise people with HIV or other STIs.
Condoms and other contraceptives and STI testing are available for free at primary healthcare centres. Youths can access these in a friendly, discrete and cooperative environment.