Sexually transmitted infections: what you need to know


Sexually transmitted infections: what you need to know

Updated December 2022 | 4 min read

Sexually transmitted infections, or STIs. It's a health issue we don’t talk about enough. If you’re sexually active, here's how to identify the signs and symptoms of an STI. 

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) – sometimes referred to as sexually transmitted diseases or STDs – are spread mainly through unprotected sexual activity, including oral, vaginal and anal sex. According to the World Health Organisation, there are more than 30 different bacteria, viruses and parasites that can be transmitted through sexual contact. Infections can also be spread through shared needles, blood transfusions, or from mothers to their babies during pregnancy or childbirth.

Are STI rates increasing or decreasing?

Let's start with the good news. 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. This is thanks to the National Immunisation Program which offers free hepatitis B vaccines to infants, people up to 19 years of age and refugees and humanitarian entrants of any age.

Donovanosis, once a common STI among remote Aboriginal populations, has been nearly eliminated and rates of HIV infection are declining.

The bad news is that STIs are still a widespread problem in Australia. Chlamydia rates are still high (it's currently detected in approximately one in 20 young Aussies who are screened for it) and gonorrhoea and syphilis rates among urban women continue to increase.

STI rates have also been increasing faster for older women, according to research by the CSIRO. The study, which was published in December 2020, found that from 2014 to 2018, chlamydia rates increased the most among women aged 55 to 64 years and declined in those aged 15 to 24 years. Gonorrhoea rates increased the most among women aged 65 to 74 years (the least in those aged 15 to 24 years). And syphilis rates increased the most among women aged 55 to 64 years (the least in those aged 15 to 24 years).

There also continues to be a significant gap between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous populations. According to the Kirby Institute's Annual Surveillance Report 2021, rates of gonorrhoea are more than six times as high for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders than non‑Indigenous Australians, infectious syphilis more than five times as high and chlamydia almost three times as high.

Common signs and symptoms of STIs

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 vagina, penis 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
  • fever, nausea or unexplained joint aches.

It's important to remember that some STIs don't always cause symptoms. In fact, around three in four women with chlamydia don’t show any early symptoms (for men, it's around one in two).

How can I reduce the risk of an STI?

Regardless of your age, sexual orientation or relationship status, if you're sexually active, you're at risk of contracting an STI. Even if you or your partner seem perfectly healthy, it's still possible to have an infection.

While condoms (when used properly) are highly effective at reducing STI transmission (98% effective at protecting against STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhoea), they're not foolproof. So, if you think you've been exposed to an STI, or you have symptoms of an STI, make sure you get tested. You should also inform your sexual partner or partners so they can get tested too.

If you're in a high-risk group for HIV, your GP may be able to prescribe you a preventive medicine called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). When taken as prescribed, PrEP reduces the risk of contracting HIV from sex by about 99% and from injection drug use by at least 74%.

There are also vaccines available for HPV (the virus that causes genital warts) and hepatitis B.

How are STIs treated?

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 get tested regularly if you're sexually active. Chlamydia – the most widespread STI among all sexually active age groups – along with 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 and hepatitis 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 hepatitis B can both lead to cancers, and HIV can develop into AIDS. Left untreated, chlamydia and gonorrhoea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and infertility. So STIs can be more serious than you might think.

How to talk about sexual health

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 so they can give you the best care possible. Your doctor can provide you with sexual health and contraception advice, organise STI tests, and explain how to manage and treat symptoms.

Need to chat to a GP?

We know it can sometimes be hard to manage your health in a convenient way. Our partnership with GP2U, an online video GP service, makes it easier for you to access telehealth services.

There are some restrictions on the GP telehealth consultations that can be bulk-billed through Medicare. We know it can be hard to manage your health in a convenient way. Our partnership with GP2U, an online video GP service, makes it easier for eligible members to access telehealth services. All HCF members with health cover can access a standard GP consultation (up to 10 minutes) for a fee of $50. See for more information. 

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