STIs don’t care about your sexual history - you can get an infection on your first or 100th time, so it's vital we know the facts

Sex education is firmly on the agenda at the moment, with a cross-party education select committee recommending that sex and relationships education (SRE) be made statutory in both primary and secondary schools and the secretary of state for education recognising the importance of SRE.

With young people under 25 as one of the groups most at risk of being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI), equipping our young people with the knowledge and skills to look after their sexual health and negotiate healthy relationships is vital if we want to stamp out myths like these.

MYTH: Only people with a lot of sexual partners get STIs

STIs don’t care about your sexual history. They can be passed on through unprotected (without a condom) vaginal, anal or oral sex, by genital contact and through sharing sex toys – whether you’ve had sex one or 100 times.

And despite what a lot of people think, STIs don’t only affect young people – diagnoses are on the rise among people over 45.

MYTH: You can always tell if someone has an STI

You might think that it would be obvious if you or a sexual partner has an STI. When we think of STIs many of us think of the obvious symptoms like lumps, bumps, rashes or unpleasant discharge. But often STIs don’t have any signs or symptoms at all (or they might not appear for weeks or months) so a person with an STI might not know they have one if they haven’t been tested.

Even if you don’t have any signs or symptoms it’s a good idea to get tested if you’ve had unprotected sex (without a condom) and, of course, the best way to help protect yourself is to use a condom when you have sex.

MYTH: You don’t need to worry about STIs as treatments are so effective these days

Although STI treatments are very effective, it is always a better idea to avoid getting an STI in the first place. Some viruses like genital herpes and HIV can be treated but remain in the body. There is also evidence that some STIs, such as gonorrhoea, are becoming resistant to antibiotics.

MYTH: You can get an STI from a toilet seat

It’s a persistent myth but getting an STI from a toilet seat isn’t something to be concerned about. STIs are passed on through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex, by genital contact and through sharing sex toys. Some STIs, such as pubic lice, can also be spread through skin-to-skin contact or sharing clothes, towels or bedding.

 

MYTH: Oral contraception can protect against STIs

Oral contraceptives (the pill) are only effective in preventing pregnancy; they can’t stop STIs being passed on. Male and female condoms are the only methods of contraception that will help protect you from getting and passing on STIs when you have oral, vaginal or anal sex. You can also use a plastic square, often known as a dam, to protect yourself if you have oral sex.

MYTH: You can’t get an STI from oral sex

Although the risk of getting an STI through oral sex is generally less than vaginal or anal sex, there is still a risk. Some infections are spread more easily through oral sex than others; the most commonly passed on are herpes simplex, gonorrhoea and syphilis. The best way to help protect yourself during oral sex is to use a male or female condom or a dam to cover your genital area or anus.

MYTH: STI testing is really painful

There is no need to fear getting an STI test. For both men and women they can often be as quick and easy as giving a urine sample, or they might involve a visual examination to look for signs of infection, having blood taken, or using a swab on the genital area – no umbrellas inserted into the penis, we promise! Although they can be uncomfortable for a moment, swabs aren’t painful. And if a swab is needed, some services will offer you the option of using it yourself.

Health professionals don’t look at an STI test as a reflection on your behaviour, but as a sensible health decision.

MYTH: You have to pay for STI tests and treatment

All STI tests and treatment are free through the NHS at genitourinary medicine (GUM) or sexual health clinics. You can find your nearest service by using FPA’s Find a clinic tool. Many GPs offer free STI testing as well, although you may have to pay a prescription charge for any treatment.

In England, the National Chlamydia Screening Programme offers testing for young people under 25 at various locations around the country and also gives out free home testing kits.

MYTH: Only gay men and drug users get HIV

HIV is a virus which can be transmitted in various ways, including through sex. It doesn’t matter what sexual orientation or gender you are, or whether you have had lots of sexual partners; anyone who is sexually active can be at risk of HIV. It’s estimated that just under 108,000 people are living with HIV in the UK, but around one-quarter don’t know that they have the virus.

MYTH: STIs will go away on their own

It’s very unlikely that an STI will go away by itself and if you delay seeking treatment you risk the infection causing long-term problems. There is also a risk of passing on the infections to partners, even if you don’t have any signs or symptoms at the time.

MYTH: Once you’ve had an STI you can’t get the same one again

It is possible to get the same STI more than once; having the infection doesn’t mean you’re protected in future. Viruses like genital herpes and HIV remain in the body but can be managed through effective treatments.

Natika H Halil is Director of Health and Wellbeing at sexual health charity FPA

For more information visit www.fpa.org.uk

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