Guest Article written by the FPA
(Sexual health charity FPA gives straightforward information and support on sexual health, sex and relationships to everyone in the UK. FPA educates, informs and supports people through our specialist sexual health programmes and counselling service, our websites and publications, our training for professionals and our public awareness campaigns.)
First things first, it’s really important to know that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) don’t always announce their arrival with an array of signs and symptoms.
It’s possible to have an infection and not have any symptoms at all. Sometimes symptoms might show weeks or months later following sexual contact, during which time you could still pass an STI on to someone else.
For example, about 70% of men and half of women who have chlamydia don’t get any symptoms, yet if left untreated it can cause painful complications and lead to serious health problems, such as infertility. And up to half of men and women with trichomonas vaginalis don’t experience any symptoms at all.
If you’ve had unprotected sex (without a condom) or any sort of sex where you were naked and rubbing up against your partner, you could have an infection so rather than hope for the best, it’s a good idea to get tested regularly. That way you’ll be able to put your mind at ease and, in the case of a positive diagnosis, be able to get the right treatment.
Having said that, there are some tell-tale signs of STIs which, if you do experience, you should get checked out as soon as you can by a health professional.
Unusual discharge from the vagina
This is a common symptom and can be a sign of infections including chlamydia, gonorrhoea and trichomonas vaginalis. Lots of women worry about vaginal discharge and aren’t sure what is normal or not, especially as normal discharge changes in consistency and colour during the menstrual cycle.
However, if your discharge becomes particularly thin and watery, or frothy, appears more yellow or green, or has an unpleasant smell, speak to a doctor or nurse.
Discharge from the penis
It is normal for men to have a small amount of clear or whitish discharge when the penis is erect, known as pre-ejaculate or pre-come. However, unusual discharge, which you might notice with a stain in your underwear or when the penis is not erect, can be a sign of infection.
A white, cloudy or watery discharge from the tip of the penis can be a symptom of chlamydia, while gonorrhoea can produce an unusual white, yellow or green discharge.
Unusual bleeding or pain
In some women, bleeding between periods or a heavier than usual period, or bleeding during or after sex, can be a sign of chlamydia. Hormonal changes when using contraception can also cause unusual bleeding which is not harmful, but it’s best to get checked out in case the bleeding is a sign of an infection or other more serious health problem.
Pain when peeing can be a symptom of chlamydia, genital herpes, gonorrhoea or trichomonas vaginalis for both men and women. Women with chlamydia or gonorrhoea might also notice unusual lower abdominal pain.
Itches, rashes, lumps or blisters
Unusual lumps and bumps in the genital or anal area can be a tell-tale sign of an STI.
Genital warts, caused by the human papilloma virus, can appear anywhere in or on the genital or anal area. They can be flat or smooth small bumps or quite large, pink, cauliflower-like lumps, and they can appear on their own or in groups.
Genital herpes, caused by the herpes simplex virus, can produce stinging, tingling and itching and you might also notice small, fluid-filled blisters anywhere in the genital or anal area, on the buttocks and the tops of the thighs. These burst within a day or two leaving small, red sores which can be very painful, particularly when peeing.
When you have syphilis, one or more sores – usually painless – can appear where the bacteria entered the body. Inflammation, itching and soreness in and around the vagina can also be a sign of trichomonas vaginalis.
Feeling under the weather – tired with a loss of appetite, sore throat, aching body – none of these necessarily mean you have an STI. However, HIV, genital herpes and syphilis infections can all give you flu-like symptoms. So if you think you may have taken a risk, and you are experiencing these symptoms, get yourself checked out.
If you are worried you may have been exposed to HIV, see a health professional as soon as possible. There may be the option of a month-long course of treatment called post-exposure prophylaxis – the same drugs taken by people diagnosed with HIV – which can prevent infection if started within 72 hours of exposure.
Even if you don’t have any signs and/or symptoms you may wish to seek advice if:
- you have had unprotected sex with a new partner recently
- you or a sexual partner have sex with other people without using a condom
- a sexual partner has any symptoms
- you are planning a pregnancy and may have been at risk of infection.
It’s also important to remember that condoms are the only method of contraception which can help protect you from STIs, as well as prevent pregnancy. Condoms come in a variety of shapes, sizes and fits, which means everyone should be able to find the right one for them.
Use FPA’s Find a clinic tool to locate your nearest sexual health or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic for testing and treatment.
Sexual health charity FPA gives straightforward information and support on sexual health, sex and relationships to everyone in the UK. FPA educates, informs and supports people through our specialist sexual health programmes and counselling service, our websites and publications, our training for professionals and our public awareness campaigns.