Regardless of our age, sexual orientation and sexual history, we all need to take care of our reproductive anatomy, ensuring good health and working order. To prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs), it is essential to use barrier contraception (condoms) whenever engaging in sexual intercourse.
There are many STIs that need immediate treatment. Being embarrassed, shy or unwilling to admit poor sexual hygiene, such as forgetting to use a condom, adds to the possibility of STIs being spread into the community.
If you are considering embarking on any sexual activity, it is a good idea to get advice about avoiding and checking for STIs. Advice is available from many sources and is often free and always confidential. All health professionals are required to keep confidential any personal health information.
For many, a pharmacy is an accessible first point of call for unbiased health advice. Other places include school nurses, public health nurses, family planning clinics, sexual health clinics, as well as the family doctor.
The most common STIs include the following:
Chlamydia: This is a bacterial STI infecting the urethra (tube inside the penis) in men and the urethra and cervix (neck of the womb) in women. It can also infect the rectum and sometimes the eyes and throat. It is often symptom free, which means chlamydia can spread after a change of sexual partners, and it can cause fertility problems if left untreated.
Genital warts: These are found on the skin around the genital area, vagina, cervix, penis, scrotum, urethra or anus. They may not cause any physical signs of infection and some may be implicated in cervical cancer, or cancers in males.
Gonorrhoea: This is a bacterial STI infecting the urethra in men and the urethra and cervix in women. It can also infect the rectum and sometimes the eyes and throat. Gonorrhoea is one of the oldest STIs, generally only causing symptoms in men.
Syphilis: This is caused by a bacterium that enters the body through tiny breaks in the skin - mainly in the genital area or the mouth. Syphilis was once thought to be a disease of the past, but it is becoming more common, possibly because people are having more sexual partners.
Genital herpes: This is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Most people who carry the HSV will have no symptoms. It is characterised by lesions in the genital area and flu-like symptoms. Initial symptoms appear as tingling, itching or burning in or around the genitals.
HIV/Aids: While not that common in New Zealand, HIV/Aids is life threatening. The Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes the most serious STI. This can develop into acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV attacks your immune system but there are usually no visible symptoms during the early years of infection. It is not possible to tell if your partner has HIV unless confirmed by a blood test.
The best way to avoid contracting any STIs is to always use barrier contraception during sexual intercourse. Before engaging in any sexual activity, always ask your partner about their sexual health and history. It is better to ask a few embarrassing questions than be infected with a condition that may have life changing consequences.
Sexual health clinics advise a routine check-up within two weeks of unprotected sex or a change in partner. Consult your pharmacist for any advice if you do not have the option of a sexual health clinic. They can also advise you where to go for further help if it is needed.