Government statistics published last week revealed there were 440,000 diagnoses of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) last year.
STIs may not be a common topic of conversation – but an STI scare at some point in our lives is not rare. More than a million Brits have been tested in the last 12 months alone.
Whether the fear is caused by a split condom, cheating ex, drunken one-night stand, worrying symptoms or perhaps just uncertainty about the sexual history of your current partner – the concern that you could have an STI is not a happy feeling.
Although testing and treatment have come a long way over the years, one of the big obstacles we still need to overcome is our willingness to talk about STIs and seek help. And because infections can come without symptoms, they can easily go below the radar.
Don’t be fooled
The lack of noticeable symptoms is one of the big problems associated with STIs – and can give patients a false sense of security.
Chlamydia is a major culprit, sometimes presenting with a stealth-like attack. Half of men and a massive 80% of women who have the infection won’t have symptoms. This is particularly worrying when you consider the possible outcome if it’s left undiagnosed – it can cause infertility.
It is actually the most common STI in the UK – with more than 200,000 recorded cases of Chlamydia in England alone during 2014. Because it is often asymptomatic, it’s easy to pass it on without knowing.
If you do have symptoms you could experience unusual discharge, discomfort when urinating and tenderness of the uterus or testicles. All of these could also be a sign of other sexually transmitted diseases. Most STIs can be diagnosed with a simple urine, swab or blood test though, and a course of antibiotics is effective for most infections.
Despite this, STIs in the UK remain high. Public Health England reported that GUM (genitourinary medicine) clinics and other community-based settings have seen a significant increase in syphilis and gonorrhoea cases. People are also turning to the internet for help, with treatments from our online doctor service up 42 per cent in 2015.
According to official figures, syphilis cases have increased by a third (33%) and gonorrhoea by a fifth (19%). The prevalence of the latter has more than doubled over the past decade. Genital warts did not increase during 2014, but healthcare workers still dealt with in excess of 70,000 cases.
Tackling the rise in STIs
Condoms generally offer good protection, but accidents can happen and they don’t protect against everything – pubic lice are a prime example.
While condoms can prevent the spread of STIs and treatment is a skillful weapon, a big part of the battle is to talk more openly about them. If you find out you’ve got one, telling your partner or anyone you’ve recently had sex with is a must.
Keep yourself safe and don’t leave the infection to linger. If you’re worried you could have put yourself at risk, get tested and never assume being symptom-free means you’re in the clear.
When you enter a new relationship it’s a good idea to make sure you are both STI-free, before going condom-free. The contraceptive pill often catches couples out – chances are you’ll avoid an unplanned pregnancy, but an undiagnosed STI could still play havoc.
So forget the taboo, because sexual health needs to be about straight talking. If we want to set STIs on a downward trend, we need to tackle the problem and limit the spread of these sometimes silent assailants.
Article by Dr Nitin Shori, Medical Director of the Pharmacy2U Online Doctor service and a working NHS GP.