By understanding the risks associated with sex – and doing what you can do to minimise them – you can protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and take control of your sexual health.
STIs are infections passed on from person to person via sexual contact such as vaginal, oral or anal sex. While some can be treated and cured, others can’t be. You might have heard of common STIs including chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and herpes.
If you haven’t heard the term STI before it might be because you’ve heard these types of infections referred to as STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) instead.
While these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they actually mean different things. The difference between STIs and STDs is to do with symptoms. Sexually transmitted infections can be asymptomatic (which means there are no symptoms), but diseases can’t be.
Lots of the common STIs in Australia are asymptomatic, which is why we say STI, not STD. But – whatever you want to call them – the good news is that there’s plenty of ways to protect yourself and still have lots of fun during sex.
Safe and healthy sex can seem confusing, but by arming yourself with the right information can feel confident that you’re doing everything you can to protect yourself, and still have fun along the way. Here’s how.
Hands down, condoms are the absolute best way to protect against STIs. In fact, they’re 98% effective at protecting against STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhoea when used correctly.
As well as preventing STIs, condoms protect against unplanned pregnancies as well. Now that’s what we call a win-win.
It’s important to remember that condoms are only 98% effective when they’re used correctly – so make sure you brush up on your condoms skills and that you know how to use them.
Also, although condoms are the best way to prevent STIs, they don’t protect against every single one.
Herpes and genital warts can be passed on from skin-to-skin contact and the best way to protect against those infections is to avoid having sex during any flare-ups/when there are visible symptoms.
The best way to prevent an STI is to decide what contraception (such as condoms) you’ll use before you have sex.
Despite best intentions though, sometimes things happen. If you have had unprotected sex, there are still steps that you can take to protect yourself. These include getting an STI test and not having sex until your results come back.
The first thing you’ll need to do is to get an STI test. This is usually a quick pee in a cup or a vaginal swap. These types of tests help diagnose common STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Depending on your level of risk, you may need a blood test too, to test for blood-borne infections like syphilis and HIV. Whatever tests you need though, don’t worry. It’s quick, easy, painless and often free with a Medicare Card at your local GP or sexual health clinic.
The second thing you’ll need to do is to not have sex until you know you’re free from STIs. This is because – even if you use condoms while you wait for your test results – you’re still at risk of passing on any potential STIs to your partner.
The safest thing to do is to avoid having sex while you wait for your results (it should only take a week!). If your STI test comes back positive your doctor will advise you on treatment and what to do next.
Chlamydia, gonorrhea and other infections can all be treated with a course of antibiotics – you should continue to avoid sex until your infection is treated.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a curable STI (chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis etc) avoid sex until your treatment is complete.
Although condoms do protect from STIs, there’s still a risk of something going wrong – such as the condom coming off or the condom breaking – so the only way to make sure that you don’t pass on the STI that you’ve been diagnosed with is to not have sex until your treatment is complete.
If you’ve been diagnosed with herpes (either ‘cold sores’ on your lips or genital herpes) make sure you have the facts about this common infection. The main ways to avoid passing it on include:
Avoiding genital, anal, or oral contact while any symptoms are present. Common symptoms can include tingling or ache before a blister appears, blisters/sores or unexplained cuts, and redness or itchiness.
It’s important to remember that herpes is exceptionally common and usually causes pretty mild symptoms (so mild in fact, that most people don’t even realise they have it). The stigma associated with herpes is often more distressing than any physical symptoms.
If you’ve been diagnosed with HIV – or you’re having sex with someone who has tested positive – it’s still possible to have safe sex.
Looking after your sexual health is simple. Use condoms and get an STI test every 6-12 months, if you’ve had unprotected sex, have changed sexual partners, or display any symptoms.