If you're googling "how do I know if I have an STI?" then you've come to the right place. Worrying about your health is not fun, especially when you believe you're experiencing unusual symptoms or have received a positive STI test result from a sexual partner. Conversations around sex and STIs can feel embarrassing as unfortunately there's a stigma attached to these topics. But sexually transmitted infections are actually very common, and most of them are relatively easy to get rid of.
Let's explore everything you need to know about STIs. Symptoms in females can differ from males, so it's important to know what exactly you should be looking out for, and what to do next.
First things first, what is an STI?
People spread sexually transmitted infections (STIs) through sexual contact, which includes vaginal sex, anal sex, and oral sex. Bacteria, viruses, or parasites can cause STIs, and they can affect individuals of all ages and genders.
Some common sexually transmitted infections include Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea, Syphilis, Herpes, Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Hepatitis B and C, and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Many STIs do not have symptoms, especially in their early stages, so it is possible to have an STI without knowing it.
STDs, which stands for sexually transmitted diseases, is another term used to refer to STIs. They are the same thing.
How do you catch an STI?
How are STIs spread? Through sex. The primary way of contracting an STI is through unprotected intercourse or oral sex. Infections can be transmitted through bodily fluids such as semen, vaginal fluid, or blood.
STIs such as herpes and HPV can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. In the case of herpes, transmission can occur even in the absence of visible symptoms or sores. HPV can also be spread through non-sexual contact, such as skin-to-skin contact or sharing personal items like towels or razors. Sharing needles can transmit infections such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.
How do I know if I have an STI?
Many sexually transmitted infections do not have symptoms, especially in the first stages of infection, so it's possible you could have one without knowing it. However, some common STI symptoms include:
- Pain or discomfort during sex
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Abnormal discharge from your penis
- Painful urination, such as a burning sensation
- Sores, bumps, or blisters on or around your genital area
- Itching or irritation in your genital area
- Abnormal bleeding or discharge from your vagina
- Testicular pain
If you've had unprotected sex or are concerned that you may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection (eg. an infected person has been in touch to tell you they've had a positive result) then you should get tested.
You can buy a home STI test from iPlaySafe, which consists of a blood test and urine sample. You take these samples at home and return them for laboratory tests in the pre-paid envelope provided. Your results will be available within 2-5 days of testing. Find out more and order a test here.
If you think you may have an STI, you should stop having sex until you have been tested and received your results. They are highly infectious and you could be putting your sex partners at risk.
What are the signs of chlamydia in a woman?
Chlamydia is the most common bacterial STI. In the UK in 2021, there were almost 90,000 cases of chlamydia diagnosed in people between the ages of 15-24. It often doesn't display symptoms in women, especially during the early stages of the infection, but some symptoms you should look out for are unusual discharge (thin and watery, cloudy, or yellowish in colour), pain during sex, and irregular bleeding between periods.
What are the signs of chlamydia in a man?
Symptoms of chlamydia in a man can include pain or burning sensation when urinating, discharge from the penis, and pain or swelling in the testicles.
What are the first signs of having an STI?
STI symptoms can vary depending on the specific infection and your immune system. Keep an eye out for these symptoms to know if you have an STI.
- Chlamydia: Many people with chlamydia do not have symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they may include painful urination, discharge from your penis or vagina, vaginal bleeding, and pain during sex.
- Gonorrhoea: Like chlamydia, many people with gonorrhoea do not experience symptoms. However, symptoms can include pain when urinating, experiencing penile or vaginal discharge, and painful sex.
- Syphilis: Symptoms of syphilis can appear in stages. Initially, a painless sore or ulcer may appear on your genitals or mouth. Other early symptoms may include rash, fever, headache, and swollen lymph nodes.
- Herpes: Herpes can cause painful blisters/sores on or around your genitals or mouth. Some people with herpes may also experience flu-like symptoms such as fever and swollen lymph nodes.
- Human papillomavirus: This is the most common viral STI. Many people do not have symptoms, which is why it's so difficult to prevent HPV transmission. Some strains of HPV can cause genital warts, which may appear as small, fleshy bumps or clusters.
- HIV: In the early stage of an HIV infection, many people experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, and muscle aches. Some people may also experience a rash or swollen lymph nodes after their initial infection.
How long can you have an STI without knowing?
You could have a sexually transmitted infection for several weeks, months, or even years without knowing it, depending on the type of infection. Common STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhoea can be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms that can be easily missed. This is why it's really vital to be doing regular tests, especially if you have sex with a new partner.
It's possible for someone to have HIV for years without even knowing it. This is because HIV can be a silent infection and not cause any symptoms. In fact, some people may not experience any symptoms of HIV for up to 10 years or more after becoming infected! But during this time, the virus can replicate and damage the immune system, making it easier for the infected person to get other infections or illnesses.
If you think you have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection or notice symptoms developing, it's vital to contact a healthcare provider immediately.
Will a sexually transmitted disease go away on its own?
The only sexually transmitted disease that tends to go away on its own is HPV (which can cause genital warts), you'll need to take treatment for anything else. Most STDs aren't life-threatening and can be treated with medication, which usually involves a simple course of antibiotics.
It's really important to get medication if you do test positive, even for something common like chlamydia or gonorrhoea. If these are left untreated they can develop into pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which affects the female reproductive organs. PID can increase the risk of serious complications like ectopic pregnancy, because it causes scarring and damage to the fallopian tubes, making it harder for a fertilised egg to pass through and increasing the likelihood that it will implant outside the uterus.
How can I prevent STIs?
Get tested: If you're sexually active, regular STI testing should be a normal part of your life. Prioritise your sexual health and take a proactive rather than reactive approach. Test before getting intimate with a new partner, and be open when communicating with them about it. They'll respect you for it. You can buy a home STI testing kit from iPlaySafe here.
Use condoms: If you're sleeping with someone new for the first time and don't know their sexual health status - use a condom.
If you do test positive for an STI, don't worry, it isn't the end of the world (or your sex life!) the most important thing is to stop having sex so that you don't infect anyone else, and get medication to treat your infection quickly.