Sex should be fun. For everyone involved. But it should also be safe. Knowing your way around sexually transmitted infections (STIs) keeps you healthy whether you’re hooking up randomly, in a relationship, or trying to get laid in case we get put back into lockdown. We put all the burning questions you were afraid to ask to Dr Cathy Stephenson.
No Symptoms is a good thing, right?
Sadly, that’s not the case. The majority of STIs won’t cause any symptoms at all, so it’s really hard to know whether or not you, or a partner, might have one. The only way to know for sure is to get tested. If you do have symptoms in your genital area, don’t delay – they could be due to something else, like thrush or a urinary infection, but either way the sooner you find out the better.
I had a random one-night stand before lockdown and didn’t use a condom, but I’m feeling good, so I’ll be right, aye?
Get tested. Do it at least two weeks from a change in partner or after unprotected sex, even when you have no symptoms, and you’ll be most likely to get an accurate result - testing too early can give what’s called a “false negative” result (i.e. it says its negative, but it actually isn’t). Some STIs can take two weeks to show up in your system.
I’m just into oral and not ready for ‘real sex’ so I’m good right?
Oral sex is real sex and STIs can be transmitted that way too. It’s a great way of getting syphilis, gonorrhoea, or herpes.
Syphilis and gonorrhoea… urgh aren’t they from the Middle Ages?
Rates of syphilis (particularly with men who have sex with men) and (particularly in young people aged between 15 and 25) are increasing so if you’re having unprotected sex then get tested. The sooner these infections are picked up and treated, the less likely you are to have any ongoing issues.
Could my partner have got an STI from a toilet seat?
Sorry to break it to you, but you can’t catch an STI from a toilet seat or a handshake, you catch it from close genital contact. Chlamydia is a popular STI often not picked up because it can present without symptoms. Most men will be fine if they catch it but can pass it on to anyone they have sex with. However, if it’s not treated in women it can lead to infections of the womb and tubes, scarring, and infertility. The future version of yourself who desperately wants a baby will thank you for getting an STI check today.
I’m a gold-standard condom wearer so I’ll be sweet.
Well done! Condoms are awesome! But you should still make STI testing part of your ongoing health screening with your doctor because condoms don’t prevent all infections. Testing is important for every change—or addition—in partner whether that’s you or your partner sleeping with other people.
I’ve only slept with one partner so don’t need to get tested, right?
Although your chance of an STI increases with multiple partners, you only need to have sex with one person to have been exposed to an infection. And they might be sleeping with others so it’s worth checking in with your GP or sexual health clinic.
Meet New Zealand’s Top STI
If you’re younger than 27 years, ask your GP or nurse about the free gardasil vaccine that prevents Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection. HPV is New Zealand’s most common STI and while you’re unlikely to see symptoms right off, it’s the major cause later in life of cervical, vulva, vaginal, penis, anus, and throat cancer. Almost every person who has sex (vaginal, oral, or anal) will likely be exposed to it. It’s a real lucky dip on symptoms too—some people will have genital warts whereas others will never know about the original infection. Condom use during sex doesn’t reliably prevent transmission of this virus, but the vaccine does. It’s safe, really effective, and free—we honestly can’t think of a reason not to have it.
The Low Down On When To Get Tested
If you’ve had unprotected sex, have a new partner (or more than one partner), your partner has more than one partner, or you’re worried you’ve been exposed to an STI, talk to your health care provider about getting tested. If you have any symptoms, you should obviously get tested too. Not all STIs are prevented using condoms, so even if you’ve had protected sex, getting tested is a good idea. If you leave an STI untreated it can spread to other people and can cause more serious health problems (like infertility or cancer) down the road.
What Happens During A Test?
Getting tested and treated for STIs is easy and painless these days. Hate to say it but your genitals won’t be memorable—for GPs and other health care workers examining you or taking a swab is just another day at the office. There are often options for doing ‘self-tests’ as well—that’s taking your own swabs or peeing into a pot, which means the doctor may not even need to look down there. People under 22 can often get free STI checks.
Chill, Telling People Doesn’t Have To Be Awkward
If your STI test is positive you need to tell your partners so they can get checked and treated too—this is the best way to stop the ‘chain of transmission’. Your doctor or nurse will be able to support you with this.
Some Warning Signs You Need To Know
Sure, heaps of STIs don’t have symptoms but see a health professional if any of these apply to you. None of them are comfortable so you’re going to need a solution whatever’s happening:
Vaginal discharge - different from your normal discharge
Pain or discomfort when passing urine
Lower abdominal pain
Abnormal vaginal bleeding
Anal pain or discharge
Urethral discharge(i.e. the end of the penis)
Pain or swelling in the testes
Any new lumps, bumps, or wee ulcers...
More Good Stuff
Seeing your GP nurse, or sexual health clinic is always confidential regardless of how old you are.
Sexual health clinics—here's a list of them around New Zealand—provide a specialist, confidential, service to everyone.
Look up Just The Facts for more detail about everything STI.
About Dr Cathy Stephenson
Dr Cathy Stephenson is a GP at Victoria University of Wellington and Fellow of The Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners. She has special interests in sexual health, contraception, mental health, and well-being. She’s also part of her local sexual assault service and provides teaching to the police and other groups around sexual harm response and prevention.
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