Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) or STDs, also known as venereal diseases, are infections or diseases that are passed from one person to another through sexual contact – usually spread by having vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Bacteria, viruses, or parasites that are on the skin or mucus membranes of the genital area or are present in semen, vaginal secretions, saliva or blood, can be transmitted from one person to another.
What are the symptoms of STIs?
Many STIs have only mild symptoms or none at all. Symptoms in women could easily be mistaken for a urinary tract infection or common yeast infection. Usual symptoms of STIs include burning sensation during urination, itching, swelling or sore in the genital area, pelvic pain/painful intercourse and vaginal/penile discharge. Sometimes women may have a change in color, odor and/or thickness of their usual vaginal secretions.
The stigma of STIs
Research conducted in Kenya and Nigeria showed interesting findings. Men were more likely than women to seek treatment for STIs. Women tend to bear the bulk of the stigma attached to STIs, with infections often being seen as a sign of promiscuity. As a result, women may choose not to confide in anyone, even if they have an unusual discharge or a sore.
The majority of young women who reported at least one STI symptom were married and may have been infected by their husband. Married women, out of fear of possible repercussions, may choose to treat their STIs themselves rather than risk going to a public health facility that might share their information with their husband. In fact, many women who experience such STI symptoms as vaginal discharge and genital itching do not regard them as serious or as the result of sexual intercourse and, therefore, do not believe that they need to be treated.
Stigma-related violence or the fear of violence and other stigma prevents many people from seeking testing (especially HIV testing), returning for their results, or getting treatment, possibly turning what could be a manageable illness into a death sentence and continuing the spread of STIs.
If you suspect you have an STI, it’s important to get tested. The sooner you know, the sooner you get treated and the less likely you are to spread the infection. Testing can be done at health centers, general hospitals, family planning clinics, state teaching hospitals, private health facilities and designated HIV test centers.
Anyone who tests positive for any STI should get tested for HIV and other STIs and follow up with testing for partners. Doctors often recommend treatment for you and your partner but keep in mind that the STI may have been contracted from a former sexual partner.
Anyone who tests positive for HIV should:
- Get screening and treatment for other diseases like Tuberculosis, Malaria and other STIs
- Follow up with testing for partners and children
It is troubling that recent estimates report that only 51% of people with HIV know their HIV status. HIV testing can be done confidentially or anonymously.
Bacterial and parasitic infections, such as Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Syphilis can be treated and cured with antibiotics.
Viral STIs such as Genital Herpes (HSV-2), HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B & C cannot be cured. They can be managed with medications to help reduce the signs and symptoms of the illness related to the infection as well as its complications.
- For all of these sexually transmitted diseases, it is important to note that EARLY DETECTION is the key to a good outcome.
How can you prevent STIs?
The only fail-safe way to prevent an STI is SEXUAL ABSTINENCE!
If you do have sex, lower your risk of getting an STI with the following steps:
- Limit your number of sex partners – Your risk of getting STIs increases with the number of partners you have
- Be monogamous – Having sex with just one partner can reduce your risk for STIs
- Get vaccinated – There are vaccines to protect against HPV and Hepatitis B.
- Use a Barrier Contraceptive – Condoms are the best way to prevent STIs when you have sex.
- Oral contraceptives and implanted devices, do NOT protect from STIs
- Get tested – Be sure you and your partner are tested for STIs. Talk to each other about the test results before having sex
- Avoid douching – It removes some of the normal bacteria in the vagina that protects you from infection. This may increase your risk of getting STIs.
- Do not abuse alcohol or drugs – Drinking too much alcohol or using drugs increases risky behavior and may put you at risk of sexual assault and possible exposure to STIs
These steps work best when used together. No single step can protect you from every single type of STI.