by Hassan Thwaini
Most of us have been there.
It’s your first week at university and the chlamydia tests have already been sent out. You do the test. You continue to party during freshers’ week. You meet someone, grab their number, and send an embarrassing drunken message. You wake up the next morning to your phone buzzing and immediately rise up (don’t be dirty here!). You check your phone. Your heart sinks. It’s the local GUM clinic giving you your first positive test result in university.
So what do you do?
IT's a question on the minds of many.
Sometimes, there is no way--besides testing--you could have known that you have an STI. As you may have learned in school (if you weren’t too distracted by your teacher putting a condom on a banana), sexually transmitted diseases can present with a variety of symptoms or with no symptoms at all.
Discussing STIs with your friends can be awkward. Even more uncomfortable is the thought of having to tell your recent sexual partner(s) that they might develop a burning sensation in the not-too-distant future, and that they should go get checked. But why does it have to be so embarrassing?
With over 450,000 new STI diagnoses in 2019 in the UK alone, and more than 1 million chlamydia tests carried out, nobody should be embarrassed at the thought of having to go for a test.
Here at Yoxly, we want to assure you that STIs are not embarrassing. We want to provide you with a community (strange as a sexual health community may sound) to remind you that you are not alone.
What Is An STI?
In case you didn’t pay attention to Mrs. Cocker’s lesson on sexual health during school, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that can get passed from person to person (often unintentionally) during sexual activity, whether it be vaginal, anal or oral sex. Surprisingly, some STIs can also be spread by skin-to-skin contact or via exposure to contaminated blood products.
There are over 30 different types of viruses, bacteria, and parasites causing a variety of sexually transmitted infections. Of these, eight are linked to the most prevalent STIs, four of which are currently curable: Gonorrhoea, Chlamydia, Syphilis, and Trichomoniasis.
There is, however, a hidden, often unknown truth behind STIs...
Many STIs can be present without showing any symptoms. Just note, we are not referring to the incubation time here, which is when an infection lays dormant until the symptoms start to prevent themselves.
Have we convinced you to get checked yet? When was the last time you had a test? If it has been a while, you can order our at-home testing kits and send your samples straight to our laboratory for analysis. You’ll receive results quickly--and, whilst you wait, you may as well continue reading through our blog. You’ll be surprised how common these infections are--and by some famous figures who’ve had to endure the odd, uncomfortable itch!
What Are The Most Obvious Symptoms Of STIs?
We’ll delve right into the most common symptoms to look out for if you think you may have an STI:
Discharge from your vagina, penis, or anus
Pain or discomfort when urinating (presuming you weren’t making salsa verde and comforted an itch “down there” after chopping your jalapenos)
Lumps or ‘cold sores around your genital region
Unusual vaginal bleed
However, a very common symptom is no symptom at all!
How Long Does It Take For Symptoms To Show?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a general answer to this question. Most STIs have unique infective profiles and present themselves at different times.
Symptoms for the most common STIs occur after a few days or weeks. However, some symptoms for certain infections may take months or even years to show up.
As discussed in our blog, an incubation period, without getting to sciency, is the time between exposure to an STI and the development of your first STI symptom (if any).
Below you’ll find a breakdown of the symptoms associated with some of the most common STIs, how quickly they appear, and when you should consider getting yourself tested.
You may have heard chlamydia referred to by your friends or on the telly as “the silent STI”--often because most people are unaware they have it!
Chlamydia symptoms typically present around 1-3 weeks after sexual contact, and can include:
Vaginal or penile discharge (sometimes odorless)
Pain while urinating
Testicular or vaginal pain
Unusual vaginal bleeding after sex
Remember, over 50% of men and 70% of women with a chlamydia infection do not have any symptoms. If you have an inkling of doubt as to whether or not you may have chlamydia, then you should order a test as soon as possible, because early diagnosis and prompt treatment can minimize your risk of future complications!
Colloquially known as “the clap” or “the drip”, gonorrhoea is one of the most common STIs out there. Not only can gonorrhoea infect your genitals, but depending on the type of sexual activity, it can also infect your eyes and throat. So use protection–in the form of a condom, a dental dam, or a swanky pair of CAT safety specs. Do note, however, that barrier methods are still not always 100% protective. You should, therefore, opt for a test if you feel the need to!
Gonorrhoea symptoms usually appear between 10-14 days after sexual contact. The symptoms are a bit more specific, and therefore sometimes easier to distinguish. They include:
Greenish-yellowish discharge from the tip of your penis or vagina (this discharge is sometimes so purulent that it may drip, hence the colloquial name “the drip”)
Pain when urinating
Painful, swollen testicles
Also known as “trich”, trichomoniasis is a common STI that has a unique presentation profile:
Trichomoniasis can also manifest as other common STI symptoms, such as pain on urination or ejaculation, and itching around the genitals.
The symptoms tend to show up between 5 - 28 days after sexual intercourse. However, in 70% of the population, the infection shows no symptoms!
The good news is that all of the aforementioned infections are curable (except for that pesky “super gonorrhoea”)! There are a number of STIs out there that are incurable, such as hepatitis, HIV, and HPV. But thanks to scientific advancements, these STIs can be vaccinated against or successfully managed with appropriate medications.
So, How Can I Know Whether Or Not I Have An STI?
There’s no other way to put this: TEST YOURSELF REGULARLY.
Regular testing can help you to be confident about your STIs status. If you do develop any genito-urinary symptoms, an STI test is a key investigation to confirm or exclude the cause of your symptoms.
It is also important to establish when your partner(s) was last tested, to determine if they (or someone they’ve recently had sexual contact with) may have an STI. Embarrassing as it might be to ask, it is vital that you and your partner(s) have open and honest conversations about these things, in order to help keep healthy and safe.
Benefits Of Early Testing
We’re not here to scare you or judge you. We’re here to remind you about the importance of regular testing. Make an STI test kit part of your annual MOT--though you may need testing more often, depending on your level of sexual activity, or if you develop any symptoms.
Early diagnosis and treatment of STIs is critical and can prevent future health complications. A few health complications that can arise as a result of a chronic STI infection include:
Pelvic inflammatory disease
Chronic pelvic pain
HIV (being infected with certain STIs can increase your risk of contracting HIV, if exposed)
Death (extreme, we know, but syphilis was a killer back in the 1500s, when penicillin hadn’t been invented yet!)
The Bottom Line
Taking care of yourself is important. So why not add sexual health to your self-care regimen, and get tested regularly. This is an area of your health over which you have complete control--so do it to yourself, for yourself, and for those you love (even if it’s just for the night).
Hassan Thwaini is a qualified Clinical Pharmacist who has completed his Master's degree at the University of Sunderland. Since then he has not only pursued community and clinical pharmacy, but has expanded to aid in humanitarian work across the less fortunate areas of the globe. Hassan is currently working as a medical writer and has successfully been published within various nutritional websites, produced unique content for his university board, and carried out research for renowned surgeons.