On the big pluses of menopause is the security of knowing that you are free of the spectre of an unwanted pregnancy. You are, however, not immune from contracting a Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI, STD). So what diseases are commonly spread?
Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a bacteria called ‘Chlamydia trachomatis’. It affects both men and women, and it’s spread by having unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex with a person who has the infection.
Most people who have chlamydia don’t notice any symptoms and so they don’t know they have it. Research suggests that half of men and 7 to 8 in 10 women don’t get symptoms at all with a chlamydia infection. Symptoms may include pain when you urinate, an unusual discharge from the penis, vagina or rectum or, in women, bleeding between periods or after sex.
Chlamydia is treated with antibiotics. If it isn’t treated, the infection can sometimes spread to other parts of your body and lead to serious long-term health problems such as pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility (not being able to have children).
Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV) — the same type of virus that causes cold sores.Genital herpes can cause outbreaks of blisters or sores on the genitals and anus. Once infected, you can continue to have episodes of symptoms throughout your life.
Most people infected with genital herpes have no symptoms, but some people can experience:
- stinging or tingling in the genital area
- small blisters on the genital area which develop into small painful red sores
- sores that look like a rash or cracked skin on the genitals
- difficulty passing urine
There is no cure for genital herpes. However, it is possible to reduce the symptoms using anti-viral medicine. This is most effective when started within 72 hours of the first symptoms. Medicines can help control outbreaks if they are frequent or severe. Anti-viral medicine can reduce the risk from passing the virus on to your sexual partner.
Human papillomavirus/Genital Warts
There are more than 100 types of HPV that affect the skin. About 40 of these can cause genital warts, while others cause warts elsewhere on the body. Other types of HPV are associated with cervical cancer and anal cancer. The types of HPV that cause genital warts are unlikely to cause cancer.
The HPV vaccine protects you against the types of HPV that cause most genital warts as well as the high-risk types of HPV that cause cancer. However, the vaccine doesn’t protect against all types of HPV. Safe sex, and having a Cervical Screening Test every 5 years is vital for any woman aged 25 to 74 who has ever been sexually active. (The Cervical Screening Test detects HPV and has replaced the Pap smear.)
Genital warts are usually painless. They can be bumpy, flat, or appear in clusters. Genital warts may clear up without treatment. However, if they are painful, unsightly, itchy or annoying, they can be treated. Treatment doesn’t get rid of the virus itself, just the warts. Your immune system may clear the virus, or it may persist undetected.
Treatment options include:
- wart paint (specifically for genital warts)
- freezing (cryotherapy) or burning off
- laser treatment
- cream to boost the immune system to fight the HPV virus
Gonorrhoea is a sexually transmitted infection. Also known as ‘the clap’, gonorrhoea is caused by a bacteria and can affect the urethra (the tube for urine), cervix (the opening of the uterus at the top of the vagina), anus, throat or eyes.
Gonorrhoea often has no symptoms, and if left untreated, can cause permanent damage and infertility in men and women. Gonorrhoea is spread by having unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex with an infected person. Gonorrhoea can also be passed from an infected mother to her baby during birth, which can cause eye infection (neonatal conjunctivitis) and even blindness.
If you contract gonorrhoea you will need to seek medical treatment through your doctor or local sexual health clinic.
Viral hepatitis can be caused by hepatitis A, B, C, D and E viruses. It can also be caused by the glandular fever virus (EBV) and cytomegalovirus (CMV). In hepatitis B, the virus infects the liver cells and causes an immune response which can lead to liver damage over time.
Most people with hepatitis B become infected at the time of their birth or in early childhood. This is usually the case in places where hepatitis B is widespread. Some people get hepatitis B when they are older. It can happen through exposure to infected blood and other bodily fluids in the following situations:
- sharing needles and other injecting drug equipment
- sharing razors, toothbrushes or nail clippers
- sexual contact (either heterosexual or homosexual)
- tattooing with unsterilised needles and equipment
- close family contact with someone with hepatitis B
- being born to a mother with hepatitis B (although this is very rare in Australia as babies are vaccinated soon after birth)
- accidental exposure such as a needle stick injury or being splashed with infected blood or body fluid
- blood transfusion – this is now very rare as blood in Australia is screened for hepatitis B
You cannot catch hepatitis B through being coughed or sneezed on by infected people or by consuming contaminated food and drink. You cannot catch the virus from saliva, breast milk or tears.
You can prevent hepatitis B by being vaccinated.
HIV and AIDS
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the virus that causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The late stage of HIV infection is called AIDS. Not all people with HIV have AIDS.
If HIV is not treated, most people will develop severe immune deficiency within 10 years. It is this untreated viral infection that can lead to AIDS, as the body becomes less able to fight infections and protect against cancers developing because the immune system stops working properly.
Most people have no symptoms or a mild flu-like illness when they are first infected with HIV, and it may be difficult to tell them apart from other viral infections. This illness, called ‘seroconversion illness’, often occurs around 10 to 14 days after infection.
HIV is in the blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk of an infected person. It can be spread by exposure to these body fluids by:
- unprotected anal or vaginal sex without a condom
- sharing drug injecting equipment
- tattooing, piercing and other procedures with unsterile needles or equipment
- transmission from mother to baby during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding
- oral sex and sharps injuries, although this is rare
It’s important to remember that HIV is not spread through activities such as kissing, sharing cups and cutlery, normal social contact, toilet seats or mosquitoes.
Your doctor or sexual health clinic can order a blood test for HIV. They may also use a rapid test in the office that can provide a result within 30 minutes, but this will always need to be confirmed by laboratory tests.
There is no vaccine or cure for HIV infection. However, there are effective treatments available that can help prevent the progression to AIDS and help ensure a near-normal life expectancy.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection (STI). It is caused by bacteria and can cause serious health problems if left untreated. However, it is easy to cure if found early. Syphilis is rare in Australia but the numbers are increasing, especially in men who have sex with men and young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in northern Australia.
There are three stages to the disease and symptoms in the first two can easily be mistaken for other illnesses. Late stages of syphilis can cause tumors, blindness, and paralysis. It can damage your nervous system, brain and other organs, and may even kill you.
Syphilis is very infectious, particularly during the early stages. Syphilis is easily curable with antibiotics in the early stages. If you get treatment late, it will still cure the infection and stop future damage to your body.
If you think you may have syphilis, it is important to see a doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor will confirm the diagnosis with testing and start treatment if required.
If you suspect that you have contracted an STI it is very important to tell previous sex partners who may have been exposed so that they can also be tested and treated if infected. Your doctor will help you decide who you need to tell and how you can tell them.
For more information contact your local doctor, sexual health clinic or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222.