As fun as sexual intimacy can be, the risks associated with sex are often the last thing people think about when they are aroused. One of the main risks of sexual activity is the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
STIs can take various forms and often lead to undesirable symptoms for the person carrying the infection. In severe cases, sexually transmitted infections that go untreated may lead to serious illness or even death.
It’s always important to consider the safety of both sexual partners during sex, which means understanding STIs and how to protect yourself from them. This article explores what STIs are, the main types of infections, as well as tips for reducing your chances of catching or spreading one.
Sexually transmitted infections may be spread through various sexual activities including foreplay, oral sex, and full intercourse.
Individuals should always prioritize safe sexual activity, not just during penetrative intercourse.
What are STIs?
Also known as Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) STI is the term used to describe infections that can be transferred between people during sexual contact. Several undesirable health effects may occur as a result of STIs, which can present themselves with a range of symptoms (but are sometimes symptomless). We explore these in more depth later in the article.
What Causes STIs?
The spread of STIs is caused by individuals carrying an infection coming into sexual contact with someone else. According to the NICHD, there are three different types of causes for sexually transmitted infections. These are bacteria, viruses, and parasites as shown in the table below:
|Bacteria||Syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia|
|Viruses||HIV/AIDS, HPV, hepatitis B|
|Parasites||Crab live, scabies mites|
Who is at highest Risk of STIs?
Naturally, all individuals who are engaging in sexual activity are at risk of catching an STI. However, those who engage in risky sexual behavior such as unprotected sex, or sex with multiple partners may be at a higher risk compared to individuals who practice safe sex.
Main Types STIs
Many different kinds of STIs exist. In this section, we’ll be exploring some of the different kinds of sexually transmitted infections, explaining what they are, and highlighting some of their symptoms. While this list is intended to be comprehensive, it’s not exhaustive. If you believe you are experiencing any unusual symptoms as a result of an STI consult a medical professional.
|Chlamydia||Often symptomless, pain when urinating, burning or itching urethra, painful testicles.||The most commonly reported bacterial infection in the United States. Caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis|
|Syphilis||Genital ulcers, sores, white or gray warts on genitals, rash on hands or palms of feet, white patches in mouth, flu symptoms, glands swelling, patchy hair loss||A serious and potentially life-threatening bacterial infection caused by the bacterium treponema pallidum|
|HPV||Usually symptomless, can cause painless lumps to occur in the genital region.||Said to be the most commonly spread STD in the world, with 80% of the world's population exposed by age 50|
|HIV/AIDS||Increased temperature, throat sores, rashes, fatigue, joint or muscle pain, swollen glands, weight loss, chronic diarrhea, night sweats, skin issues, recurring infection, life-threatening illness.||
Gained notoriety during a global pandemic,
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
|Herpes||Small blisters, sores near genitals, itching or burning near genitals, painful urination, unusual discharge.||
Herpes simplex virus (HSV) infections can cause mild and self-limited disease at the mouth or genital sites.
On occasion, the disease can be life-threatening.
|Trichomoniasis||Painful urination or ejaculation, urinating more frequently than usual, thin white penile discharge, soreness, swelling and redness around the head of the penis or foreskin.||Trichomonas vaginalis is a protozoan and one of the most common non-viral STIs in the United States.|
|Gonorrhea||Green or yellow discharge from the vagina or penis. Painful urination and bleeding between periods.||Neisseria gonorrhoeae is a sexually transmitted infection, which causes worldwide morbidities across nations regardless of their resource status.|
|Hepatitis B||Increased temperature, tiredness, upper stomach pain, sickness, itchy raised skin, yellowed skin, and and whitened eyes||Hepatitis B has been called a “serious global healthcare problem” and can be transmitted through bodily fluids.|
|Pubic Lice||Visually noticeable lice, itching, red or blue spots on skin, white/yellow eggs attached to hair, dark red or brown spots in underwear (lice feces), crusted eyelashes.||
Pubic lice refers to parasites (known as crabs) that reside in pubic hair.
It’s thought that falling incidences of lice may be due to pubic hair reductions.
Best Ways to Protect Yourself from STIs
While the most effective method of avoiding STIs is refraining from sexual activity, this isn’t practical for everyone. The unfortunate reality is that every sexually active person is at risk of catching a sexually transmitted infection.
While they can’t be considered 100% effective, some techniques may be used in an attempt to reduce the chances of STI transmission.
These involve several methods ranging from improving communication to utilizing contraception. We’ve explored them in more detail below.
1. Use Condoms
Condoms are a form of contraception which involve rolling a thin layer of material (such as latex) over the penis and keeping it there during sexual activity. In doing so, skin-to-skin contact between sexual partners' genitals is reduced and semen produced during ejaculation is caught within the condom making them an effective form of birth control.
Condom effectiveness in preventing STIs can vary between different infections.
According to a research article, the male condom offers over 90% protection against Neisseria gonorrhoeae, 50-90% protection against Chlamydia trachomatis. It also states that HIV transmission is reduced by approximately 85% when condoms are used correctly 100% of the time.
2. Have a conversation with your sexual partners about your sexual history
With improvements in communication between sexual partners, there’s a possibility that you could reduce the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. However, we acknowledge that this may not always be practical, given that “one night stand” cultures involve sexual intimacy between people who may not know or trust each other.
However, if you feel comfortable talking about sexual history to a partner, it may save you a nasty infection further down the line.
For example, having a conversation about sexual history and previous infections presents an opportunity to disclose any potential issues in advance. It also allows you to analyze the risk before being sexually intimate.
3. Be aware of which sexual practices are riskier
Although most acts of sexual activity present a risk of STI transmission, some may be considered more risky than others. It may help people to understand which types of behaviors are linked with an increased chance of transmitting STIs. Armed with this information, individuals may be able to reduce their chances of getting one.
Some sexual practices, such as engaging in sex with multiple partners or regular unprotected sense may seem obvious risk factors.
However, more nuanced behavior such as problem drinking may be associated with a higher chance of STD transmission. Feelings of disinhibition when drinking and drug use may be associated with increased STDs due to their effects on the rates of partner change.
4. Get vaccinated
According to the World Health Organization, vaccinations are simple, safe and effective ways of protecting individuals against diseases that may harm them. Using the body's natural defenses, vaccinations can build resistance to certain infections and increase the strength of a person's immune system.
Unfortunately, there aren't vaccinations to prevent people from catching the majority of STIs. However, one example of a useful vaccination is the HPV vaccine. This is considered one of the most effective vaccines available, having been introduced to the immunization programs of over 100 different countries. HPV has strong links to cervical cancer.
5. Mutual Monogamy
Although this may go without saying in some relationships, explicitly stating that you are in a monogamous relationship with your partner may help to reduce your chances of catching or passing on a sexually transmitted infection.
STI-free monogamous partners may have less chance of encountering an STI, in theory.
Although the concept does make sense, some research has highlighted that monogamy may not protect against STIs as expected. For example, couples may not necessarily comply with monogamy. Monogamous couples may also consider engaging in less “safe sex” practices compared to couples who are openly non-monogamous.
6. Test yourself and discuss testing with your partners
Getting yourself tested and talking about STI testing openly with your partner is a great way to check in on one another's sexual health. Although it can be considered an awkward or sometimes embarrassing subject, discussing sexual testing can showcase a mature and sensible approach to sexual activity.
Mentioning that you get tested for STIs regularly may encourage partners to adopt similar behavior.
This could lead them to identify issues that they otherwise wouldn’t. Furthermore, before engaging in sex with someone you don’t know, checking how frequently they get tested will help you understand their attitude to sexual health. We’ve explored guidance for sexual testing in the next section.
When to get tested for STIs
Although not everyone realizes it, sexual health tests are something that should be done routinely. This means that you don’t need to wait for symptoms to present themselves before getting sexual health checks. After all, some STIs don’t present any symptoms.
Based on government guidance, (accurate at the time of writing) we have highlighted some of the advice for STD testing in the table below.
|Adults and adolescents aged 13-64||Have at least one test for HIV|
|Women under 25, or older with risk factors sex as multiple partners, or partners with STDs||Get tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia every year.|
|Anyone who is pregnant||
Get tested for syphilis, HIB, hepatitis B and C.
Those at risk of infection should also be tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea early in pregnancy.
Repeat testing may be needed
|Sexually active men who have sex with men||
Get tested once a year for syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea (more frequently if multiple partners).
Get HIV tested at least once a year, hepatitis C once a year if living with HIV.
|Anyone who engages in sexual behaviors that put them at risk of infection or shares equipment for drug injection||Get HIV tested at least once per year.|
|People who have had oral or anal sex||Talk with healthcare providers about throat and rectal testing options.|
When to see a doctor
If you have noticed unusual symptoms, tested positive for an STI or have come into contact with someone who is carrying an STI you may consider seeing a doctor. Although many STIs can be symptomless, if you believe you have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection, or engaged in risky sexual behavior you should consider getting tested or seeing a medical professional.
The harsh truth is that if you’re sexually active then you may be at risk of catching or spreading a sexually transmitted infection. Unfortunately, there are vast amounts of sexually transmitted infections, some of which are symptomless and may severely impact a person’s health.
The good news is that there are a number of steps you can take to reduce your chances of STI transmission.
Some of these include using contraception such as condoms, having conversations about each other's sexual history, and understanding which sexual practices present more risk.
Although the information in this article is intended to be informative, it cannot be considered a substitute for professional medical advice. If you believe you have come into contact with a sexually transmitted infection, get tested or consult your doctor for guidance.
Intrigued About Penis Health and STI Prevention?
Our blog series is here to provide you with valuable insights:
We put in extensive effort to ensure that each blog post on our site delivers valuable and trustworthy information to our readers. These are our main focus areas:
- Human writing
- Exhaustive research and fact-checking
- Use of Reliable and Reputable Sources
- Collaboration with Experts