Rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) rise alarmingly over the festive period. To avoid returning from your holiday with an unwanted souvenir, read on to find out how to be safe rather than sorry.
Summer is here and the sun, sea and sand are beckoning. People are more relaxed as they spend time with family and friends. The extended party time means they are also more likely to “get it on” with their partner or someone they fancy.
It may be the silly season but that’s no excuse for you to put your health at risk when it comes to sex. Despite extensive progress in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of sexually transmitted infections, the prevalence of common STIs remains a problem around the world.
This is because people behave differently on holiday, says Professor Elna McIntosh, a clinical sexologist.
“People tend to abuse alcohol and drugs when they’re on holiday, and they let go of their inhibitions,” McIntosh adds.
Everyone is tired and worn out from working hard all year but then they seek excitement as part of their relaxation, says Dr Jeanne Aspeling, a medical doctor who also contributes to the mysexualhealth.co.za information website.
“A person’s libido increases as stress decreases and because people are generally more social during this time, they are in more contact with potential sexual partners,” she says.
Visiting a medical centre after the holidays then becomes a necessity for anyone who has practised unsafe sex because having intercourse without a condom increases not only the incidence of STIs, but also the transmission of HIV/Aids.
Get the facts
One reason STIs are on the rise is that people think they can only be infected if they have sexual intercourse. That’s wrong.
You can get some STIs, like herpes or genital warts, through skin-to-skin contact with an infected area or sore.
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, a sexual health consultant, says: “STI risk is not only about penis-vagina sex, but also includes oral and anal sex. This is why it’s important to continue using a barrier, like a condom, even if one is taking a contraceptive. This is because the viruses or bacteria that cause STIs can enter the body through tiny cuts or tears in the mouth and anus, as well as the genitals,” she says.
It’s important to note that STIs spread easily and you can’t tell whether someone has an infection or not. Some people with STIs don’t even know that they have them. These people are in danger of passing on an infection to their sex partners without even realising it.
“What’s scary is that about 70 percent of women and 50 percent of men don’t have any symptoms while being afflicted with an STI,” Dr Aspeling says.
Viral infections can be silent and some infections have very long incubation periods, says Dr Mofokeng.
“People are embarrassed to seek help. There are not many sexual health clinics in the private sector. The public sector clinics do not always offer screening tests and are focused mainly on syndromic management (treating the symptoms rather than a specific disease) of active disease,” she adds.
There are many infections a woman can get in her genital area. Germs that live in or on a person’s genitals cause these diseases. These germs can be passed from one person to another during sex.
Mclntosh unpacks the symptoms of, and treatments for, some common STIs:
There are two types of the herpes virus: herpes 1 and 2. One out of six adults and adolescents has had Herpes Simplex Virus 2 (genital herpes). Like the human papillomavirus (HPV), herpes is difficult to diagnose without visible sores, and many people have no symptoms. The infection is more common in women than men.
Symptoms: In women, the genital areas most commonly affected are the vulva and the vaginal opening. Sores can sometimes also develop on the cervix. In men, sores are most common on the glans (end of the penis), the foreskin and shaft of the penis. Sometimes sores can develop on the testicles.
How serious is the risk? In heterosexual penetrative intercourse, a man is more likely to pass it on to his female partner if the virus is active.
Treatment: Genital herpes is manageable, with a number of treatments offering effective relief from symptoms.
It is estimated that three million cases occur annually. Chlamydia infections are under-reported as approximately 75 percent of infected women and 50 percent of infected men have no symptoms. Testing can be done with a swab test in the vagina, cervix or urethra. Some clinicians use a urine test rather than a penis or cervical swab test.
Symptoms: Symptoms may appear between seven and 21 days after infection, but they are often mild or absent. Symptoms may include a discharge from the penis, pain when passing urine, abnormal vaginal bleeding, pelvic pain or pain during sex.
How serious is the risk? Chlamydia can have serious long-term consequences if left untreated. In women the bacteria can primarily infect the cervix and eventually make their way to the fallopian tubes, leading to pelvic inflammatory disease. This can cause chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancies (when an embryo attaches itself outside the uterus) and infertility.
Treatment: Chlamydia is rapidly and reliably cured with the correct antibiotics.
Genital herpes is a common viral infection caused by Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) type 1 or 2. The virus can infect the genitals and also the anus, buttocks, top of the thighs, mouth, lips or face. Infection on the lips or face results in facial herpes, which includes cold sores. These infections have an identical appearance when seen on external surfaces.
Symptoms: Genital warts are transmitted through sexual activity. You may not develop warts for several weeks after infection and they are not always visible to the human eye. They may be very small and may appear in the same colour of your skin or slightly darker. The top of the growths may resemble a cauliflower and feel smooth or slightly bumpy.
How serious is the risk? HPV is the main cause of cancer in the cervix and can cause pre-cancerous changes to the cells of the cervix, known as dysplasia. Other types of HPV may also cause cancer of the vulva (the external genital organs of women) as well as penile and anal cancer.
Treatment: Warts can be removed by freezing or burning, by laser or by applying liquid wart paints or creams. There is a chance that if the warts are not treated, they may spontaneously resolve, but they may also multiply. Recurrences can occur after treatment. The doctor or nurse will discuss which treatment is most suitable for you.
Each year, about 650 000 people (75 percent of them aged between 15 and 29) are infected. Testing for gonorrhoea and chlamydia are often done at the same time with either a urine or swab test.
Symptoms: Symptoms usually develop within two to seven days after contact, and may be mild or absent for some time. Male and female sufferers may experience burning or discomfort when urinating or an abnormal vaginal or penile discharge.
How serious is the risk? Gonorrhoea can cause permanent health problems in men and women. In women, it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease.
Treatment: It takes the form of antibiotics. Avoid sexual contact until follow-up tests prove that the infection has been cured.
Reducing the number of sex partners you have can decrease your risk. Using a condom when having sex is the best way to avoid catching STIs.
“It’s important to put the condom on properly and use it with every single round of sex. Correct and consistent use of the male latex condom is highly effective in reducing STI transmission,” Mofokeng says.
Being in a long-term relationship doesn’t mean you stop using a condom. Mclntosh advises that you get tested with your partner before starting any sexual activity.
“It’s important that you share your test results with each other as many STIs have no symptoms at all. Avoid sex when under the influence of alcohol or drugs as it can reduce your ability to make good decisions,” she adds.
Have an open and honest talk with your partner. Agree to be sexually active with only one person and to use a condom every time you have sex.
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