Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

Sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, are transmitted through direct sexual contact with someone who has an infection. You can catch a STI from coming into contact with bodily fluids (semen, blood, vaginal fluid) and/or through contact with infected skin or membranes (such as mouth sores).

The only way to protect yourself completely is to avoid having sex, but the best practical way is to make sure that your partner (male or female) always wears a condom.

  • Don’t have unprotected sex – always wearing a condom when having sex is the best way to guarantee not catching an STI. You may, however, get to the stage in your relationship when you are using another form of contraception and would rather not use condoms. If this is the case, you must ensure that you and your partner are both free from STIs before you stop condom use. You can both be screened at your local sexual health clinic (see below). If you are both clear of STIs, it is fine to stop using condoms as long as you ensure that you are both faithful within the relationship (see below).
  • Avoid having sex with lots of different partners (‘sleeping around’) and avoid having sex with people who sleep around.
  • Never assume that your sexual partner will be free from STIs.

Common STIs include:

  • Chlamydia is the most common STI in the UK, especially among people under 25. It is a bacterial infection which, if left untreated, can lead to serious health issues such as infertility. It is possible to be infected with chlamydia and have no symptoms at all so it’s important to have yearly tests if you are sexually active to check that you are clear. There is a National Chlamydia Screening Programme in the UK for under-25s. Ask at your local pharmacy, your GP surgery or nearest GUM (genitourinary medicine) clinic. If you do have chlamydia, it is important to treat it as early as possible with a course of antibiotics. If left untreated, chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) which is important to diagnose and treat so it won’t lead to serious complications such as infertility (the inability to have a baby).
  • Gonorrhoea is another bacterial STI common in under-25s and can be treated by an antibiotic injection or tablets. The main symptoms that you have contracted gonorrhoea is a thick green-yellow discharge from your vagina, pain when urinating and bleeding between your periods but some infected people will show no signs.
  • Genital warts are very common and are the result of a viral skin infection caused by the human papiloma virus (HPV). Wearing a condom will not necessarily protect you from genital warts because they are spread by skin-to-skin contact, not by penetrative sex. All girls in year 8 (aged 12 to 13 years) in the UK are offered the HPV vaccine to help protect against HPV types 6 and 11. These cause most cases of genital warts. It also protects against the types that are linked to cases of cervical cancer in the UK.
  • Herpes is another viral infection (the herpes simplex virus type 1 and type 2) and causes painful blisters on your genitals and surrounding area. There is no cure for herpes but the symptoms can be treated with anti-viral medication.

If you think you may have contracted a STI, or are at all worried, please make an appointment at your nearest GUM clinic or sexual health clinic. The doctors and nurses who work here have seen and dealt with everything so you do not need to feel embarrassed. Your appointment will also be in the strictest confidence.

There is also a national sexual health line – 0300 123 7123 – that you can call in confidence.

Genital hygiene
It is especially important to keep your genitals clean if you are sexually active but don’t become obsessed about washing too often. The inside of your vagina has a natural ph balance that can be disturbed by over-washing. This can cause any bacteria to develop into an infection. The external part of the vagina, the labia, should only need washing once a day with a soap alternative, such as aqueous cream, and water (or just water) but is a good idea to clean the area following sexual intercourse. Keep any wash cloths or towels separate (don’t share them with anyone else) and wash them after use.

NB Vaginal discharge is completely normal and is how the vagina keeps itself clean. Read more about it here.