About STIs

There are a number of different sexually transmitted infections or STIs. They can be either bacterial or viral, and they can be transmitted through blood, other body fluids or skin-to-skin contact. Their impact on your health can range from mildly irritating to devastating. 

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The most common viral STIs include the human papillomavirus (HPV) and genital herpes. The human immunodeficiency virus or HIV is possibly the most well known viral STI.  Chlamydia is the most common bacterial STI. Other less common sexually transmitted infections include syphilis, chancroid and donovanosis, all of which you are more likely to get travelling overseas, although syphilis is also found in some areas of Australia.

If you are concerned about any unusual genital symptoms it is best to see your doctor. Tell the doctor if you have travelled overseas or if you have had sex with someone from overseas. 

Bacterial versus viral infections 

Bacterial and viral infections can both make you feel bad, they can cause similar symptoms but they are caused by very different organisms; they are spread in a different ways and require different treatment. 

Bacteria are single-celled organism, which means they can reproduce on their own and in many very different types of environments. Most bacteria are not harmful, in fact bacteria that live in your intestines help with food digestion. Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics. 

Viruses are much smaller organisms than bacteria, and whereas bacteria can reproduce on their own, viruses need a living host to reproduce. When a virus enters your body it invades cells and manipulates them to reproduce the virus. Viruses cannot be treated with antobiotics. 

Preventing STIs

It can be quite difficult to avoid sexually transmitted infections if you often have casual sex or you have sex with a number of different sexual partners. Sometimes, you may pick up a virus from skin-to-skin contact in the genital region – even if you are using condoms.  However, condoms and dental dams are your best protection against STIs. STIs can be transmitted through penetrative sex and oral sex – which is why it is important to use dental dams as well as condoms. STIs can be transmitted as easily in homosexual or lesbian sex as through heterosexual sex. 

If you think you have an STI

There is no need to feel embarrassed or ashamed about seeing your doctor or health nurse if you are worried about having an STI. Symptoms are common, and most women have some form of genital irritation or infection in their lifetime. Health professionals will not judge you and will treat you with respect and courtesy. You have the right to private and confidential health care and your situation does not need to be discussed with anyone else. There are only two exceptions to this rule: if someone is hurting you, or if you are at risk of hurting yourself. In either of those exceptional situations, for your safety, your doctor or health nurse would discuss with you the need to involve other people in your care.

An STI screen will generally mean that you have been tested for:

  • chlamydia, gonorrhea (urine or swabs), mycoplasma genitalium (swabs)
  • HIV, hepatitis B and C, syphilis (blood tests).  

If your test results are positive you will be:

  • offered counselling and treatment
  • given information regarding safe sex practices
  • advised that your sexual partners in the last 6 months be contacted (either by yourself or the Department of Health ) 
  • treated
  • advised that the results will be notified (in a way that does not identify you) to the government department that collects STI statistics in your state.  

Being diagnosed with an STI can sometimes be confronting. There is no need to be embarrassed, ashamed or frightened. These infections are common, and you should be proud that you were proactive and had a check-up, and can now be treated. For many STIs it is difficult to work out exactly who you got it from, as some infections do not show symptoms for long periods of time.

A Pap test

A Pap test is not an STI test. When you have a Pap test, you are being tested for abnormal changes in the cells of your cervix, caused by the human papilloma virus or HPV. Changes are very common in women under 25 years and are divided into low or high-grade depending on their ability to progress further to cervical cancer. Most cervical changes, in women under 25 years, are low-grade and disappear on their own. Some changes are high-grade and need further examination and treatment to avoid development of cervical cancer. But even if you have a confirmed high-grade change, it generally takes a long time (10 to 20 years) before a cancer develops. It is rare for cervical cancer to develop in women under 25 years. 

Most cervical changes in young women are completely treatable. It is good to start having Pap tests at 18 years or two years after you first start having sex, whichever is later. For example, if you were first sexually active at 15 years, have your first Pap test at 18 years. If you were first sexually active at 21 years, have your first Pap test at 23 years.  There may be some exceptions to this rule; for example, if you are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, your doctor may suggest you have a Pap test at 18 years. 

Whenever you have a pelvic examination, it is important to clarify with your doctor if you are having a Pap test or an STI screen or both.

Your Pap test result is normally reported as negative or within the normal limits or it will describe the level of abnormality (low-grade, high-grade, minor changes, consistent with HPV, unknown etc.). A recommendation will be made as to whether you should be investigated further. 


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Disclaimer

The Women’s does not accept any liability to any person for the information or advice (or use of such information or advice) which is provided on the Website or incorporated into it by reference. The Women’s provide this information on the understanding that all persons accessing it take responsibility for assessing its relevance and accuracy. Women are encouraged to discuss their health needs with a health practitioner. If you have concerns about your health, you should seek advice from your health care provider or if you require urgent care you should go to the nearest Emergency Dept.

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