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

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. Many people with STIs don’t get symptoms, so it's worth getting tested even if you feel healthy.

An STI can be passed from one person to another through sexual contact, including vaginal, anal and oral sex. You can get or pass on an STI whoever you're having sex with.

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

Many STIs can be cured with antibiotics. Some, such as HIV, have no cure but can be treated to prevent them getting worse. Some people living with HIV don’t become ill for many years and may not know if they have the virus.

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 symptoms or want a full STI screening just to put your mind at rest, you should visit your local GP or Genito Urinary Medicine (GUM) clinic.

GUM clinic details are on 'the facts' page

Always use condoms to help protect yourself from catching or passing on an STI. 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 they only protect the area that they cover. It's much better to talk with a potential partner about each others sexual history ("have you ever put yourself at risk of catching an STI?", "have you ever had an STI test?") before you have sex. That way you can put both of yourselves at ease.

Safer sex

There are many ways to have an active and fulfilling sex life, but a number of these activities put you at risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI). In nearly every case, condoms will help to protect you against this risk.

Oral sex
Oral sex involves sucking or licking the vagina, penis or anus. Some men and women (gay 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. 

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.

STIs that can be passed on through oral sex include:

  • chlamydia,
  • herpes , which can cause cold sores around the mouth and on the genitals or anus
  • genital warts, 
  • gonorrhoea,
  • hepatitis A, B and hepatitis C if blood is present, 
  • HIV
  • syphilis.

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.

You can make oral sex safer by using a condom, because it acts as a barrier between the mouth and the genitals.

Condoms are available in different flavours, but you can use any kind of condom during oral sex.

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, patch, implant and pill. Bear in mind that condoms are the only method of contraception that protect against both pregnancy and STIs, so always use a condom as well as your chosen method of contraception.

Anal penetrative sex
This is when a man’s penis enters (penetrates) his partner’s anus. Some people choose to do this as part of their sex life, and others don’t. Men and women can choose to have anal sex, whether they're gay or straight.

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. STIs that can be passed on include:

  • Chlamydia,
  • Genital herpes,
  • Genital warts,
  • Gonorrhoea,
  • HIV,
  • Syphilis.

Using condoms helps to protect you against STIs when you have anal sex.

Use a water-based lubricant, available free on the C-Card scheme 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.

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 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 an STI clinic

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

A sexual health or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic specialises in sexual health, and gives tests and treatment for many STIs.

You can make an appointment to go there, or sometimes there is a drop-in 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 a GUM 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 a GUM 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.

GUM clinic details are on 'the facts' page