Health and safety: A quick guide to STIs and protecting yourself

Let’s talk about STIs. It’s not the most glamorous topic, but it’s an important one. Being informed and preventing STIs is the best way to keep yourself and your partner healthy, so don’t delay your STI education!

Today, we’re looking at what STIs are, the most common types and symptoms, how sexual health clinics can help, and the best preventative measures.

Bookmark this page to have the best sexual health tips in your pocket. Now, let’s dive straight in.

What are STIs?

You might have heard of STIs, but do you know what they actually are?

STI stands for sexually transmitted infection. These spread through unprotected sexual contact, but some can also be transmitted through pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, or infected blood.

Most STIs can be cleared up through a short course of antibiotics. However, they shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. In rare cases or without medical intervention, STIs can have a profound impact on your health. Severe STIs can lead to increased HIV risk, infertility, and cardiovascular diseases.

Common types of STIs

Some STIs are more common than others. For example, syphilis and gonorrhoea cases increased in the UK in 2022.

Here’s a list of the typical STIs treated by NHS sexual health clinics:

  • Chlamydia
  • Gonorrhoea
  • Trichomoniasis
  • Genital warts
  • Herpes
  • Public lice
  • Scabies
  • Syphilis
  • HPV (Human papillomavirus)


General STI symptoms

Unfortunately, the majority of STIs have no symptoms. This means after any unprotected sex, you could have one and not realise it. That’s why frequent testing and the use of protective measures (condoms) is so critical.

Sometimes, STIs present with symptoms. Here are common STI symptoms:

  • Unusual discharge from the penis, vagina, or anus
  • Pain while urinating
  • Genital rashes
  • Lumps or growths around the genitals or anus
  • Unusual vaginal bleeding
  • Blisters, sores, or warts around the anus or genitals
  • Itchy genitals or anus
  • Painful genitals

Warts may also appear in the mouth or throat. However, this is an infrequent symptom.

Why don’t all STIs have symptoms?

The symptoms of any infection change from person to person due to different immune responses. Some STIs have asymptomatic phases or very mild symptoms you may not notice. Many standard STI symptoms cross with other general symptoms, so it can be hard to tell if something is wrong.

When to visit a sexual health clinic

Knowing when to visit a sexual health clinic can be confusing. However, you should always visit your local clinic if you have any symptoms of an STI. This way, you can get yourself tested as soon as possible.

You should also visit a sexual health clinic if a sexual partner has STI symptoms. This includes romantic partners and non-romantic partners. If you’ve had sexual contact with them without a condom, you need to test yourself as you could have an STI.

Even if you have no STI symptoms but have had unprotected sex and are worried about it, you can go to an NHS sexual health clinic for testing. In fact, frequent testing (without symptoms) is smart, as this keeps you on top of your health and prevents the spread of STIs. A good rule of thumb is to get tested every three to six months, depending on how many new sexual partners you have.

But remember, anyone can get an STI, regardless of the amount of partners you’ve had. It’s a myth that only those with lots of partners get STIs.

You should also visit a sexual health clinic if you’re pregnant and have symptoms of an STI.

The only way to know for sure if you have an STI is to get tested. So, don’t put it off! It’ll put your mind at rest and keep you healthy.

How sexual health clinics can help

NHS sexual health clinics offer a range of services, including contraception and STI services. These clinics are also referred to as family planning, GUM, or sexual and reproductive health clinics.

Services at UK sexual health clinics include:

  • STI testing
  • STI advice and protection
  • Contraception
  • Emergency contraception

Note that some contraceptive methods (IUDs and implants) need consultations before the insertion appointment.

Most (but not all) sexual health clinics offer:

  • Hepatitis A & B vaccinations
  • Sexual assault services
  • Cervical screening
  • HPV vaccinations
  • Post-exposure prophylactic (PEP) (Anti-HIV drugs)

All appointments at sexual are entirely confidential. Double-check what services your local clinic provides before booking an appointment.

sexual health

STI prevention: How to be safe in the sheets

So, now you know about the most common STIs, their symptoms, and how to access sexual health services.

Knowing how to prevent STIs is also crucial, as changing your behaviour will make you less likely to contract one. Remember, you can still catch an STI even if you’re practising safe sex. It’s rare, but it can happen. The only way to avoid STIs altogether is by not having sex (abstinence).

Since this isn’t a realistic option for everyone, we’ve gathered the top tips to help you keep safe and protected in the sheets:

  • Test yourself frequently – The more you test for STIs, the quicker you can catch them
  • Consider choosing partners based on recent test results – This doesn’t work for everyone, but some choose to only get intimate with those who have recent negative STI tests
  • Use condoms – When used correctly, condoms are 98% effective against STIs and pregnancy. If a condom rips or breaks, you should get tested. Condoms should be used for vaginal, anal, and oral sex
  • Get vaccinated – Some STIs have vaccines that can reduce your risk. These include Hepatitis B and HPV
  • Talk to your partner – If possible, chat with your partners about STIs, sexual health, and condoms before things get hot and heavy
  • Educate yourself – The more you know, the better protected you are. This blog is a great starting place, but you can read up on all things sexual health to find out more

If you’re worried about STIs

STIs aren’t always pleasant, but they’re nothing to be ashamed of.

If you think you have an STI, visit your local STI clinic as soon as possible. Don’t have any sex (including oral sex) without a condom until you’ve had the check-up. This is to prevent a potential spread and to keep others safe.

The takeaway

Protecting yourself against STIs is easy when you put the information into practice. Using condoms, getting tested regularly, and talking to your partner about sexual health is vital to staying STI-free. And if you do notice STD symptoms, book a test ASAP to prevent any long-term problems.

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