February is the month of love. That means the birds are doing it, the bees are doing it… Everyone will be getting it on this Valentine’s month, but before the fever of love raises the temperature, it may prove sensible to pause for a moment and give some thought to your reproductive health.
* This article was originally written for BabyYumYum.
Reproductive health implies that you are able to have a responsible, satisfying, and safe sex life. But to fully comprehend the perimeters of safe sex, we need to understand the risks and dangers associated with sexually transmitted infections.
While it is true that over the past few years, we have seen a decrease in new HIV infections, the rates of other STIs are however on the rise. This may be due to the fact that more and more South Africans are practicing unsafe sex. According to data from the Human Science Research Council (HSRC) condom use is decreasing, with close to 50% of sexually active individuals reporting condomless sex during their last sexual encounter.
People are continuing under the inaccurate impression that you will always know if you have an STI, and also, that all STIs are curable so you don’t have to use condoms. This is simply not true.
Here are some sobering facts to consider:
- Women are more susceptible to STIs compared to men
- You can have (and spread) an STI without knowing it
- Not all STIs are curable
- You can get any STI with a single unprotected sexual encounter
- Having an STI significantly increases your chance of contracting HIV
- Untreated STIs may hold serious health and reproductive complications
So what is an STI?
A sexually transmitted infection is an infection that is spread during any sexual activity, be it intercourse, anal sex or oral sex. It can also occur using fingers, other body parts, or sex toys that have come into contact with another person’s genitals or body fluids.
What are the different types of STIs?
One can classify STIs according to the type of organism. We get viral infections, bacterial infections and other types of infections.
The problem with a viral infection is that there is no cure, meaning that it will most likely stay with you for a very very long time, in some cases life-long, and although it may lie dormant for years, it can flare up again at any time.
HIV has been making headlines since its discovery in the 1980’s. A few weeks after contracting the virus one might experience flu-like symptoms followed by an asymptomatic period. There are no abnormal indications that will cause you suspect you or your partner may have HIV. That is why it is important to do yearly HIV testing.
- Herpes Simplex Virus
Both type 1 and type 2 herpes viruses can cause genital herpes. Herpes typically causes genital blisters followed by ulcers. But more than 50% of herpes cases present in an atypical way, and can even be asymptomatic. can transmit the virus even if you don’t have any symptoms – this is called asymptomatic shedding. There is no cure for herpes, but it can be managed with antiviral medication.
- Human papilloma virus (HPV)
Up to 80% of the population will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. Not everyone with the virus will show symptoms, but when your immune system is run down, you may develop genital warts or have an abnormal pap smear result. Both men and women can be affected by the virus. Certain types of the virus can result in cancers such as cervical cancer, penile or throat cancer.
- Hepatitis virus
There are three different kinds of hepatitis, some of which are spread more easily than others. Hepatitis A, B and C can all be transmitted sexually, however hepatitis B is the type most likely to be sexually transmitted. All types of hepatitis are serious and affect the liver. Hepatitis B and C are the leading cause of liver cancer and are the most common reason for liver transplants.
Most bacterial infections can successfully be treated with the right antibiotics. The concern is that you can have an infection without knowing it, and these infections can have devastating outcomes if left untreated.
Gonorrhea is caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Anyone who has any form of sexual activity can catch gonorrhea. The infection can be spread by contact with the mouth, vagina, penis, or anus. Usually gonorrhoea has no symptoms. But it can cause abdominal pain, bleeding between periods, fever, painful intercourse, painful urination, an abnormal discharge, swelling or tenderness of the vulva or anal itching.
Chlamydia is caused by the bacteria Chlamydia Trachomatis. It is the most commonly sexually transmitted infection. In the majority of cases there will be no symptoms, but it might present with similar symptoms as gonorrhea. If left untreated, it can become a serious health threat, leading to pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and sterility.
- Ureaplasma and Mycoplasma
Ureaplasma and mycoplasma can infect the urethra, cervix, throat and anus. These infections are often associated with pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women, and is a common cause of non-gonococcal urethritis in men. It has only recently been identified as a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is spread through vaginal, anal or oral sex. It can also be transmitted by sex toys, hands and fingers if they have been in contact with an infected person’s genitals or anus.
Syphilis has been called ‘the great imitator’ because so many of the signs and symptoms are indistinguishable from those of other diseases. Syphilis develops in stages and its symptoms vary with each stage. The first stage involves a painless sore on the genitals, rectum or mouth. After the initial sore heals, the second stage is characterised by a rash. Then, there are no symptoms until the final stage which may occur years later. This final stage can result in damage to the brain, nerves, eyes or heart.
Trichomoniasis is an infection caused by a parasite. It can affect both men and women resulting in a penile or vaginal discharge. It can be treated with antibiotics. “Crabs” are a form of lice that live on the hair in the genital area and occasionally on other coarse-haired areas of the body, such as the armpits or the eyebrows. They are usually spread by sexual contact, although they also can occasionally be transmitted by infested linens and clothing. Symptoms include itching in the genital area and visible lice or eggs. Scabies is a contagious skin disease that is not always sexually transmitted. Caused by the parasite Sarcoptes scabei, scabies causes an extremely itchy rash that gets worse at night. The rash is most often found in folds of skin, such as between the fingers, on the wrists and ankles, and in the genital area. Scabies is incredibly contagious, and the mite can live for days off the human body.
How can I protect myself?
Although abstinence is still the most effective way to prevent STIs it is not feasible for everyone or realistic. There are however many ways by which you can reduce your risk of getting an STI:
- Know your sexual partners and limit their number – your partner’s sexual history is as important as your own. The more partners you or your partners have or have had in the past, the higher your risk of getting an STI becomes.
- Use a latex condom – Using a condom every time you have vaginal, oral, or anal sex decreases your chances of getting an Condoms lubricated with spermicides do not offer extra protection. Frequent use of some spermicides can actually increase the risk of contracting HIV.
- Use a dental dam during oral sex.
- Get immunized – vaccinations are available to help prevent Hepatitis B and some types of HPV.
It is important to understand that you won’t learn that someone has an STI by simply staring deeply into their eyes over a romantic dinner. Get tested and enjoy the month of love responsibly.