Common conditions

Sexually transmitted infections: what you need to know

It's a health issue we don’t talk about enough. If you’re sexually active, get the facts.

Health Agenda
June 2017

Let's start with the good news. According to research from the Kirby Institute at UNSW, rates of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infection have plummeted in young people. This is largely due to the introduction of the HPV vaccine, leading to a decline in genital warts and cervical abnormalities. Similarly, rates of hepatitis B, which can be sexually transmitted, have also dropped in young people following a vaccination program.

Donovanosis, once a common sexually transmitted infection (STI) among remote Aboriginal populations, has been nearly eliminated and rates of HIV infection are stable.

The bad news is that STIs are still a widespread problem in Australia. Chlamydia rates are still high, and gonorrhoea and syphilis are on the rise.

Overseas students and older Australians are the two groups in which infections are climbing the fastest. In fact, rates of known STIs among Australians aged 60+ rose by 46% between 2009 and 2013.

Signs to look out for

While you won't always know if you've contracted an STI, go to your GP or sexual health clinic if you experience any of these symptoms:

  • unusual discharge from the penis, vagina or rectum
  • itching, bumps or blisters on the genitals
  • a burning sensation when urinating
  • pain when passing urine or in the pelvic area
  • pelvic or lower back pain
  • redness or a rash around the genitals, which can be accompanied with fever
  • fever, nausea or unexplained joint aches.

Treating STIs

Some STIs are treatable with a course of penicillin or other antibiotics. This includes chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and trichomoniasis. These STIs can have serious effects on the body, ranging from infertility to premature births or paralysis, so it’s important to stay on top of your testing schedule. Plus, chlamydia – the most widespread STI among all sexually active age groups – and gonorrhoea often have no obvious symptoms, so you can unknowingly have and transmit an infection for years.

Other STIs – including herpes, genital warts, hepatitis B and HIV – have no cure. The vaccines against HPV, the virus that causes genital warts, and hep B, are only effective before you contract the disease. Afterwards, it's a case of managing symptoms.

Antiviral treatments can keep herpes and HIV virus levels low, which may help people with HIV stay healthy for a long time. But while herpes is comparatively benign, genital warts and hep B can both lead to cancers, and HIV can develop into AIDS. So STIs are more serious than some people think.

Let’s talk about sex

Talking about sex can be awkward. But good sexual health includes effective communication. This includes talking openly with your sexual partner. Do it in a matter-of-fact way and stay sensitive to your partner’s feelings.

Consider discussing:

  • your sexual history and expectations
  • using protection. Unless you're in a committed relationship where you feel your risks are low, you should insist on it
  • any past or current STIs either of you may have had, including any treatment you’ve received
  • what you’ve been tested for and when.

It’s also important to be completely honest with your doctor about your sexual health as they’ll be able to offer guidance, help you stay on track with testing, and assist you to tackle any problems head-on.


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