STIs aren't always easy to diagnose, so it's possible that you, or your partner, could have an STI without even knowing it.
The new rules of engagement. With STI rates soaring, we reveal the stay-safe sexual health truths every woman needs to know now.
1. Get with the lingo
Chances are you've heard the terms STD and STI, but have you ever wondered what the difference is (and whether there even is one)? Clearing up the confusion, Jill Michelson, operations manager at Marie Stopes International says, "Infection simply means that your body has a germ such as a parasite, virus or bacteria that can cause sickness.
An infected body does not necessarily have to have any symptoms or signs of the germ being present. A disease, however, means the infection is actually causing you to feel sick or to notice something is wrong." Michelson also points out that the term STD refers only to infections that cause symptoms or problems damage caused by an STI that has progressed. "Although all STDs are preceded by STIs, not all STIs result in the development of STDs."
Put simply, STI is a much broader term than STD where possible, it's also the preferred term (nobody wants to have a disease a stigmatising word but an infection isn't so bad). As Michelson warns, they're equally important and neither should be viewed as being less or more dangerous; both need to be treated immediately. So, why should you care about sexual health lingo? Knowledge is power and your body (and sex life!) will love you for it. Besides, knowing more about the "what ifs" of unsafe sex may just help to prevent them.
2. They're going up... STI rates, that is
It's estimated that one in eight people has an STI. Stats are collected and reported separately for each infection but they do have something in common rates of infection are on the up. Kathy McNamee, chief medical officer from Sexual Health and Family Planning in Victoria, Australia says the most common way they're passed on is through unprotected sex. "The important thing to remember is that the only way either can be prevented is by using condoms," she adds.
Comparing past Chlamydia figures confirms this alarming trend. In 2007 there were almost 50,000 notifications of Chlamydia nationwide, while in 2000 there were less than 17,000 notifications. That's right the rate of diagnosis has almost tripled! That led us to ponder why? "People could be becoming more careless when it comes to practicing safer sex, as well as more experimental, which may have resulted in the increase," Michelson explains. "Advances in testing and increased testing have also led to an increase in notifications."
The upshot? While many STIs, like Chlamydia and Gonorrhoea, are easily treated if diagnosed in the early stages, some can cause irregular or heavy periods, pelvic pain and even infertility if not addressed. So see your doctor if you think you could be at risk.
3. Some men lie about their sexual history
Sure, it's disheartening, but it's a fact that some men and women do hide things from their partners (confess, how many times have you hidden a new pair of shoes?). Now, the last thing you're going to want is to be questioning your partner's honesty but, as well as grilling him for details, taking precautionary measures can only be a good thing. "Some people do lie about it, so it's important that you practice safe sex at all times and both have regular STI check-ups," Michelson says. McNamee agrees: "Put yourself in a position to greatly decrease your risk of catching an STI."
4. You could have one and not know it!
STIs aren't always easy to diagnose, so it's possible that you, or your partner, could have an STI without even knowing it. Don't freak out just yet the secret is looking after your body in the same way you'd care for your car (cue regular services. Translate: STI tests). "Some STIs have no symptoms, so there is no way of telling that you have them unless you get regular STI check-ups," Michelson says. Some STIs, however, do have obvious symptoms. "These can include change in the amount, odour or colour of vaginal discharge; bleeding in between periods and after sex, a burning sensation while urinating; pelvic pain; lumps or sores around the vulva," explains McNamee.
"If you develop any of these symptoms that's your warning sign and you need to get tested. Regardless, if you're aged under 25 and have no worrying symptoms, you should have a yearly check (a urine test) for Chlamydia. It's free and your GP or local sexual health centre can organise it for you."
5. It doesn't mean he's cheated
Most people who contract STIs don't have any symptoms, so don't go jumping to conclusions too soon. "Your partner may have contracted it years ago and only recently realised that they had it (by coming up positive to a test), so it doesn't necessarily mean he's been unfaithful," Michelson says. How did he get it? "Some STIs can be passed through skin-to-skin contact; others require contact with infected body fluids such as blood, saliva, vaginal secretions or semen."
6. Yes, you can get one from oral sex
Ladies, you have been warned... but that's not to say you should quit going downtown. The key is to remember to do so safely with a condom.
Just as well; according to a Durex Sexual Wellbeing survey, 72% of Australians use oral sex as a turn-on tactic more popular than massages, erotic materials and sexual fantasies. "Theoretically, you can get any STI through unprotected oral sex; herpes would be one of the most common," says McNamee.
Other possible STIs via oral sex are genital warts, Chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and hepatitis B. And since we're fans of equal opportunity, if you fancy a bit of oral yourself make sure a dental dam is used to act as a barrier between the vagina and mouth. Safe sex = less risk. And you gotta love that.
7. You have an STI, now what?
"It's important to see your doctor or local sexual health centre as soon as you think you may be at risk," Michelson advises. "You'll have a chat with your doctor about your sexual history, a physical examination or test (blood, swab and/or urine samples) and then a follow-up appointment once the results come back."
Your doctor will also discuss the best treatment options for your needs. McNamee advises contacting sexual health centres for information as well as making a list of questions to ask your doctor; find out as much information as possible so that you can share it with your current or future sexual partners.
8. Sex can become sexy again
Trust us, being diagnosed with an STI will not damage your sex life or your personality. "STIs are very common; you aren't the only person in the world who has one, so you shouldn't feel embarrassed or nervous about it," Michelson says. "As long as you're open and honest with future partners about your sexual health and always take precautions there's no reason why you can't get back to enjoying yourself in the bedroom."
Learning to enjoy sex again, post-diagnosis, is all part of the fun. Dr Vivienne Cass, clinical psychologist, sexual therapist and author of The Elusive Orgasm, says sensual massaging is a great way to re-create intimacy, particularly if sex is off limits for a while. "Buy some aromatic massage oils and take turns to massage each other," she says. "As well as relaxing both people, it's a great 'connecting' exercise."