February is the month of love, so it makes sense to focus on reproductive health this month. Reproductive health implies that people are able to have a responsible, satisfying and safe sex life. But one can’t really understand what safe sex means if you don’t understand the risks and dangers involved.
Over the past few years, we have seen a decrease in new HIV infections but the rates of other STIs are on the rise. This might be due to the fact that more and more South Africans are practising unsafe sex. According to data from the Human Science Research Council (HSRC) condom use is decreasing, with close to 50% of sexually active individuals reporting condomless sex during their last sexual encounter.
People are under the impression that you will know if you have a STI and that you don’t have to use condoms since STIs are curable. But this is not entirely true. Here are some scary facts to consider:
- Women are more susceptible to STIs compared to men.
- You can have a STI without knowing it.
- Not all STIs are curable.
- You can get any STI with only one unprotected sexual encounter.
- Having an STI significantly increases your chance of contracting HIV.
What is an STI?
A sexually transmitted infection is an infection that is spread during any sexual activity be it intercourse, anal sex or oral sex. It can also occur using fingers, other body parts, or sex toys that have come in contact with another person’s genitals or body fluids.
What are the different types of STIs?
STIs can be classified according to the type of organism. We get viral infections, bacterial infections and other.
The problem with a viral infection is that there is no cure, meaning that it will most likely be with you for a very, very long time, in some cases lifelong.
HIV has been making headlines since its discovery in the 1980’s. A few weeks after contracting the virus, one might experience flu-like symptoms followed by an asymptomatic (no symptoms) period. During this time, you won’t suspect you or your partner of having HIV. That is why it is important to do yearly HIV testing.
2. Herpes simplex virus
Both type 1 and type 2 herpes virus can cause genital herpes. Herpes typically causes genital blisters followed by ulcers. But more than half of cases present in an atypical way and can even be asymptomatic. You can transmit the virus even if you don’t have any symptoms, this is called asymptomatic shedding. We don’t have a cure for herpes, but one can manage it with antiviral medication.
3. Human papilloma virus (HPV)
Up to 80% of individuals will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. Not everyone with the virus will show symptoms, but should your immune system fail to contain the virus you might develop genital warts or have an abnormal pap smear. Both men and women can be affected by the virus. Certain types of the virus can result in cancers such as cervical cancer, penile or throat cancer.
4. Hepatitis virus
There are three different kinds of hepatitis, some of which are spread more easily than others. Hepatitis A, B and C can all be transmitted sexually; however, hepatitis B is the type most likely to be sexually transmitted. All types of hepatitis are serious and affect the liver. Hepatitis B and C are the leading cause of liver cancer and are the most common reason for liver transplants.
“Close to 50% of sexually active individuals report condomless sex during their last sexual encounter.”
Most bacterial infections can successfully be treated with the right antibiotics. The concern is that you can have an infection without knowing it, and these infections can have devastating outcomes if left untreated.
Gonorrhoea is caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Anyone who has any type of sex can catch gonorrhoea. The infection can be spread by contact with the mouth, vagina, penis or anus. Usually gonorrhoea has no symptoms. But it can cause abdominal pain, bleeding between periods, fever, painful intercourse, painful urination, an abnormal discharge, swelling or tenderness of the vulva or anal itching.
Chlamydia is the most commonly sexually transmitted disease and is caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. In the majority of cases there will be no symptoms, but it might present with similar symptoms to gonorrhoea. If left untreated, it can become a serious threat leading to pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and sterility.
3. Ureaplasma and mycoplasma
Ureaplasma and mycoplasma that can infect the urethra, cervix, throat and anus. These infections are often associated with pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women, and is a common cause of non-gonococcal urethritis in men. It has only recently been identified as an STI, and is spread through vaginal, anal or oral sex. It can also be transmitted by sex toys and hands and fingers if they have been in contact with an infected person’s genitals or anus.
Syphilis has been called ‘the great imitator’ because so many of the signs and symptoms are indistinguishable from those of other diseases. Syphilis develops in stages and symptoms vary with each stage. The first stage involves a painless sore on the genitals, rectum or mouth. After the initial sore heals, the second stage is characterised by a rash. Then, there are no symptoms until the final stage which may occur years later. This final stage can result in damage to the brain, nerves, eyes or heart.
Trichomoniasis is an infection caused by a parasite. It can affect both men and women resulting in a penile or vaginal discharge. It can be treated with antibiotics. “Crabs” are a form of lice that live on the hair in the genital area and occasionally on other coarse-haired areas of the body, such as the armpits or the eyebrows. They are usually spread by sexual contact, although they also can occasionally be transmitted by infested linens and clothing. Symptoms include itching in the genital area and visible lice or eggs.
Scabies is a contagious skin disease that is not always sexually transmitted. Caused by the parasite Sarcoptes scabei, scabies causes an extremely itchy rash that gets worse at night. The rash is most often found in folds of skin, such as between the fingers, on the wrists and ankles, and in the genital area. Scabies is incredibly contagious, and the mite can live for days off the human body.
How can I protect myself?
Although abstinence would be the most effective way to prevent STIs, it is not feasible or realistic. There are, however, many ways to reduce your risk of getting an STI:
- Know your sexual partners and limit their number. Your partner’s sexual history is as important as your own. The more partners you or your partners have, the higher your risk of getting an STI.
- Use a latex condom. Using a condom every time you have vaginal, oral or anal sex decreases the chances of infection. Condoms lubricated with spermicides do not offer extra protection. In fact, frequent use of some spermicides can actually increase the risk of HIV.
- Use a dental dam during oral sex.
- Get immunised. Vaccinations are available that will help prevent hepatitis B and some types of HPV
It is important to understand that you won’t know that someone has an STI by staring deeply into their eyes. Get tested and enjoy the month of love.