Sexually Transmitted Infections

STIs can still be passed on from one person to another even if you don’t have full penetrative sex

Testing and treatment for STIs is free and confidential

STIs - Who’s Got One?


STIs and symptoms

Many STIs are passed from one partner to the other because the sexual fluids (e.g. semen or vaginal fluid) mix together; a condom is a barrier and prevents this from happening. Some STIs pass across through skin-to-skin genital contact and although a condom can reduce the chance of this, there is obviously still a risk because not all skin is covered by the condom.

If you suspect that you have a sexually transmitted infection (STI) don't panic. You simply need to get tested, then treatment can be given if it's needed. The commonest STI is chlamydia and it does not cause symptoms in the vast majority of people who have caught it, so it's worth getting tested even if you haven't noticed any lumps and bumps, pain or discharge. If left untreated chlamydia can lead to painful conditions and damage fertility in both males and females.

Women can pass infections on to women, and men can pass infections on to men.

Many STIs are caused by bacteria and can be cured with the correct antibiotics. Of course this medication doesn't act as a vaccine so sexual partners also need to be treated or re-infection can easily happen. Some STIs are caused by viruses, e.g. herpes or HIV, and although they cannot be cured they can be treated to prevent any symptoms from developing or getting worse.

You can’t tell by looking at someone (including yourself) whether they’ve got an infection, so it’s important to get a check-up if you’ve had unprotected sex.

If you have ever had unprotected sex and notice a change, such as pain when you pee or blisters on your genitals, you should visit your nearest iCaSH clinic. Even if you don't have symptoms you are welcome to have a full STI check-up to put your mind at rest. Here you can get advice and treatment about contraception as well as sexually transmitted infections.

iCaSH clinic details are on 'the facts' page.

Always aim to use condoms to help protect yourself from catching or passing on an STI. Even if you don't manage to use one each and every time, whenever you do use one it will give you some protection. C-Card condoms have the CE mark on the packet which means that they've been tested to high European safety standards. However, condoms won't protect you against every STI as some are passed on from skin-to-skin genital contact which might not be covered by a condom.

Safer sex

There are many ways to have an active and fulfilling sex life, but some activities put you at risk of catching a sexually transmitted infection (STI). In nearly every case, using a barrier like a condom or a dam will help to lessen this risk by preventing sexual fluids from mixing and reducing skin-to-skin contact.

Oral sex
Oral sex involves sucking or licking the vulva, penis or anus. Some men and women (gay, lesbian and straight) choose to do this as part of their sex life, and others don’t.

There's a risk of getting or passing on STIs if you're giving or receiving oral sex and some people like to make oral sex safer by using a condom or a dam, because it acts as a barrier between the mouth and the genitals. The condoms available in different flavours are ideal for oral sex, but you can use any kind of condom with a CE mark.

If you or your partner has an infection, the risk of passing it on increases if either of you has sores or cuts around the mouth, genitals or anus. This is because viruses and bacteria (which may be present in semen, vaginal fluid or blood) can travel more easily into a partner’s body through breaks in the skin.

If you have a cold sore and you give your partner oral sex, you can infect them with the herpes virus, and they may get genital sores. Similarly, herpes can pass from genitals to mouth.

Vaginal penetrative sex
This is when a man’s penis enters a woman’s vagina. If a condom is not used, there's a risk of pregnancy and of getting or passing on STIs, including chlamydia, genital herpes, genital warts, gonorrhoea, HIV and syphilis.

Infections can be passed on even if the penis doesn’t fully enter the vagina or the man doesn’t ejaculate (come). This is because infections can be present in pre-ejaculate fluid (pre-come).

There are many methods of contraception to prevent pregnancy, including the injection, implant, coils and pill. However bear in mind that condoms are the only method of contraception that protect against both pregnancy and STIs, so it is smart to use a condom as well as your chosen method of contraception. It is not recommended to use additional lube when having vaginal sex because it can make the condom more likely to slip off. In most cases a woman’s vagina becomes lubricated when she is sexually aroused, so lube isn’t necessary. However certain experiences (like FGM or childbirth) or health conditions might mean lube is needed to make things comfortable – just be sure to use water-based stuff which won’t damage any condoms.

Anal penetrative sex
This is when a man’s penis enters (penetrates) his partner’s anus. Some men and women (gay and straight) choose to do this as part of their sex life, and others don’t.

Anal sex has a higher risk of spreading STIs than many other types of sexual activity. This is because the lining of the anus is thin and can easily be damaged, which makes it more vulnerable to infection. Any tears in the skin allow infections to be transmitted very easily. Using condoms helps to protect you against STIs if you have anal sex. Because there is no natural lubrication inside the anus it’s essential to use a water-based lubricant (available free on the C-Card scheme) to protect the skin and the condom too. Oil-based lubricants (such as lotion and moisturiser) can cause latex condoms to break or fail.

This is when someone inserts one or more fingers into their partner’s vagina or anus. It's not common for fingering to spread STIs, but there are still risks - which would obviously increase if someone fingers more than one partner without washing their hands in between.

If there are any cuts or sores on the fingers, no matter how small, the risk of passing on or getting HIV or other blood-borne infections (such as hepatitis B or C) increases.

Sex toys
This covers a wide range of items including vibrators, strap-ons and sex dolls. Any object used in sex can be called a sex toy, whether it's designed for this use or not.

It's important to keep sex toys clean. If you’re sharing sex toys, make sure that you wash them between users, and put a new condom on them.

Visiting a clinic

Getting tested and treated for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is straightforward and confidential, and most infections can be cured.

A sexual health clinic is sometimes called a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic. In Norfolk this service is called iCaSH, which stands for 'integrated Contraception and Sexual Health' because it is possible to get contraception advice and treatment there too, as well as testing and treatment for many different STIs.

You can make an appointment to go there, or sometimes there is a walk-in-and-wait clinic (which means you can just turn up). You might feel embarrassed but there’s no need: the staff at these clinics are used to testing for all kinds of infections. It’s their job, and they won’t judge you. They should do their best to explain everything to you and make you feel at ease.

You can go to an iCaSH clinic whatever age you are, and whether or not you have symptoms. If you're under 16, the service is still confidential and the clinic will not tell your parents.

If they suspect that you or another young person is at risk of harm, they might need to tell other healthcare services, but they will talk to you before they do this.

Your details
When you go to an iCaSH clinic, you will be asked for your name and some contact details. You don’t have to give your real name if you don’t want to, and if you do it will be kept confidential. Your GP won’t be told of your visit without your permission.

If any test results are not available during your visit, the clinic will need to contact you with them, so give them the correct contact details. They will check how you want to receive your results: they can usually be given to you over the phone, in a text or in an unmarked letter.

Answering some questions
You will see a doctor or a nurse, and they'll ask you about your medical and sexual history. Be prepared to answer questions about your sex life, including when you last had sex, whether you have had unprotected sex, whether you have any symptoms and why you think you might have an infection.

You can ask to see a female doctor or nurse if you prefer but you might have to wait longer than you usually would, until one becomes available.

Having the tests
The doctor or nurse will tell you which tests they think you need. They should explain to you what is going on and why they are suggesting these tests. If you are not sure about anything, ask them to explain.

The tests might involve:

  • A urine sample.
  • A blood sample.
  • Swabs from the vagina (which you can usually do yourself).
  • An examination of your genitals.
  • Testing for chlamydia and gonorrhoea usually requires only a urine sample. Testing for HIV and syphilis needs a blood sample.

Getting your results
With some tests, you can get the results (and treatment if you need it) on the same day. For others, you might have to wait for a week or two. If this is the case, the clinic will check how you would prefer to receive your results.

If possible, tell your sexual partner and any ex-partners so that they can get tested and treated as well. If you don't want to do this, the clinic can usually do it for you (it’s called partner notification, and the clinic will not reveal who you are).

The best way to protect yourself from getting or passing on an infection is to use a condom every time you have sex.

Bear in mind that if you have had an STI once this does not make you immune to it: you can get the same infection again.

iCaSH clinic contact details are on 'the facts' page