10 facts you need to know about your sexual health
Dr Aisling Loy, consultant in genito-urinary medicine at the GUIDE Clinic in St James’s Hospital, tells us all we need to know about keeping downstairs in tip-top shape
STIs do not discriminate
In general, people are not great at looking after their sexual health. Many believe only “promiscuous people” get STIs. If you’re sexually active, you’re at risk, even if you do not have multiple partners. STIs can be transmitted even when condoms are used, though they are the most effective barrier to prevent transmission. Herpes, genital warts, hepatitis B, syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhoea can be transmitted through unprotected oral sex. The only 100pc protection against STIs is total abstinence, which isn’t realistic for most. The next best thing is to wear a condom and get tested regularly.
Most STIs have no symptoms
Many people believe that if they had an STI they would know about it. They expect to see or feel something different if they are infected. However, most STIs have no symptoms at all. The only way you will know if you are carrying one is to get tested. There are over 30 different types of bacteria, viruses and parasites that cause STIs. Many of the more common ones, such as chlamydia, are usually detected in patients who have no symptoms.
STIs are on the increase
STIs — including HIV — are increasing. More people are getting tested, but a lot of it is down to more people actually having STIs due to factors such as the availability of casual sex through apps, more disinhibition through alcohol and drugs and lower condom usage.
Syphilis is still around
Syphilis is a bacterium that can cause damage to the heart, brain, nerves, eyes and ears and can be passed from mother to child in utero. If left untreated, it can have very significant consequences. Most people diagnosed with syphilis have no symptoms and it is picked up in a blood test. Sometimes the only symptom, if any, is a fleeting rash on the body that then disappears. Syphilis is easily treated with penicillin injections.
Herpes is more common than you think
Herpes is extremely common but there is still a lot of misinformation about it. Very often people diagnosed with herpes suffer in silence and feel they can never have a normal relationship again. However, that is often not the case.
It is important to know if it is herpes type 1 or 2 that you have been diagnosed with, as there are different implications for your sexual partners depending on the type. Herpes type 1 is a cold sore virus and can also cause genital herpes. However, most people will pick up herpes type 1 at some stage in their lives so it is usually of less consequence to other partners.
Most people pick up the genital warts virus at some stage
There is an awful lot of misinformation about genital warts online. Most people don’t realise that most sexually active adults will pick up the genital wart virus at some stage and as the virus only stays in your system for approximately two years, it is often of no consequence to most. Although there is no known medicine to get rid of the virus (your immune system will do that), we have many treatment options to get rid of genital warts.
The ‘Morning after Pill’ for HIV
Post Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) is essentially the morning after pill for HIV. If you have had a significant HIV risk and are within 72 hours of that exposure, you can attend your local STI clinic or Emergency Department to avail of PEP. This involves taking HIV treatment tablets for 28 days to reduce your risk of acquiring HIV. The best prevention though is to always use condoms.
Free Hepatitis vaccination to prevent incurable illness
Many people are at risk of hepatitis B through sex. This virus is 100 times more infectious than HIV, more common than HIV, and in 10pc of people, becomes a life-long infection that can lead to liver cancer or death.
How often should I be screened?
If you are sexually active, get screened at least once a year. For men who have sex with men, those who have multiple partners and those who have changed partners recently, it is a good idea to get screened twice yearly.
What does an STI screen entail?
At the GUIDE clinic we now offer express screenings. If you have no symptoms, haven’t been in contact with a known STI, and don’t need to talk to a healthcare provider, then you may be suitable. Some STIs can be diagnosed on the day and others take 1-2 weeks for results to come back. The clinic, and medication, is completely free of charge. However, donations, no matter how small, are gratefully received.
Dr Aisling Loy is a consultant in Genito-Urinary Medicine at the GUIDE Clinic, St James’s Hospital