Sexual Health

STIs: ideas about risk and decisions to test

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) include chlamydia, genital warts, syphilis, herpes and HIV. If caught early most are easily treatable with antibiotics, but if left untreated they can have serious consequences including infertility (not being able to have children) and ectopic pregnancy.

Many people we spoke to avoid catching STIs by using condoms, or did not have unprotected sex till both partners had been tested for STIs. The only way to keep safe is to use a condom, particularly if having sex with casual partners.

But young people are often surprised to find out that vaginal sexual intercourse is NOT the only way people can be infected with chlamydia. The National Chlamydia Screening Programme in its website said that people: “can get chlamydia by having unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who is already infected. It can also be passed on by sharing sex toys which haven’t been washed or covered with a condom before each use. It can also be passed by a pregnant woman to her baby during pregnancy or at the birth.”

The National Chlamydia Screening Programme recommends that:
if you have oral sex, cover the penis with a condom or the female genitals with a latex or polyurethane (plastic) square (dam).

There are a number of reasons why people we interviewed decide to be tested for STIs. Sometimes they are prompted by symptoms, like pain or bleeding during or after sex, chronic stomach pain, lower abdominal pain, an unusual discharge, itching around the genital area, pain when passing water, heavy periods or bleeding between periods. A sixteen year old girl we talked to had pain when passing water and a blister appeared on the lip part of the vagina.

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Some go for a test even though they don't have any symptoms or, when invited to take part in the National Chlamydia Screening Programme, some worry they may have contracted an infection because they have not always used condoms. Other times a friend being diagnosed with an STI, or learning about the consequences, can prompt a person to get a check-up. Or they might find out that one of their partners ex's had an STI and have an anxious time waiting for the result.

To suspect you have an STI can be overwhelming for teenagers and often those we talked to did not talk about it with their parents. This often meant dealing with clinic visits, tests and results on their own. But young people, particularly young women may decide to go as a group to a clinic and get tested. Katie, Alice and a couple of other friends from university decided to get tested for STI’s and went to the GUM clinic together. They felt reassured by the mutual support and companionship and it made the experience easier to deal with.

In general, media campaigns about STIs were seen as a positive thing: it helped young people to be aware of the health risks involved in sexual activity and to talk among friends about it. Some of the young people we talked to attribute their decision to have a STI test to media awareness and peer group discussion.

Students we spoke to said they were ‘clued up’ when it came to STI testing and that this has resulted from public health campaigns and media programmes and knowing where to go to get tested. 

Sometimes though media campaigns were seen as adding to the stigma of having an STI. One young woman suggested that scary media campaigns were responsible for some of the misinformation about STIs.

Last reviewed January 2016.

Last updated August 2012.


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