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The long-term effects of STIs: why you should get checked now

The clap, the clam, the pox, the gift that keeps on giving – we’ve got so many funny nicknames for sexual transmissible infections (STIs). But when the long-term side effects of STIs can include chronic pelvic pain, infertility and in some extreme cases, cancer, STIs suddenly become no laughing matter. STIs are spread through sex and sexual body contact. That’s all types of sex too including anal sex, oral sex and penis in vagina sex as well as hand play and through sex toys.

There’s no way of knowing for sure if you or the person you’re having sex with has an STI without being tested. That’s because these nasty infections aren’t always visible to the eye and are sometimes painless. What’s concerning is that people can be having sex without knowing they’re infected, which means the infection could be passed on and be causing damage to your body unnoticed. 

But it’s easy to be sexually healthy. You see, there are a few simple things you can do to have a confident and healthy sex life, to look after your body and make sure don’t have an infection that could cause you harm. They’re covered here with a rundown of the most common STIs, what they can do to your body and simple ways you can prevent getting them.

Long-term effects of chlamydia

Chlamydia is one of those STIs that people can live with for years without knowing they have it. That’s because it’s usually symptomless. It’s also very common – in 2019 alone, over 23,000 Queenslanders were diagnosed with chlamydia.

If it’s not treated, chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) for people with a vagina, which is a serious illness that causes fever and pain in the lower abdomen. PID can also cause scarring in the fallopian tubes, which can make it difficult to become pregnant and increases the risk of having an ectopic pregnancy. Babies whose mothers have untreated chlamydia might be born with eye or lung infections.

Untreated chlamydia can cause infections in the urethra (the tube in the penis that pee and semen passes through) and also cause sore, swollen testicles. Ouch.

Long-term effects of gonorrhoea

Like its name, the long-term side effects of gonorrhoea are just as ugly. Gonorrhoea is one of those STIs that won’t always cause symptoms, so you might not know it’s there while it messes with your body. If it has not been properly treated, gonorrhoea can cause an infection in the testicles, leading to infertility. Like chlamydia, it can also lead to PID, which may cause chronic pain, infertility and increased risk of having an ectopic pregnancy.

Gonorrhoea infection also increases the risk of HIV transmission in people of any gender.

Long-term effects of HPV

Human papillomavirus or HPV is a virus that can cause genital warts but won’t always cause symptoms. You can catch HPV even when there are no warts visible. If you do develop warts, these can be treated.

There are many strains of HPV virus. Some of these strains, in extreme cases, have been linked to cervical, anal and mouth and throat cancer. The good news is that regular cervical screening through the National Cervical Screening Program can accurately detect a HPV infection. If you have a cervix and are aged over 25 years ago, talk to a doctor or nurse about having a cervical screening test.

A vaccination against HPV is available for people of all genders. You can read more about how and when to get vaccinated on the HPV Vaccination website. (Note: you should still have cervical screening tests even if you have had the HPV vaccine).

The long-term effects of STIs
The long term effects of STIs are no laughing matter.

Long-term effects of syphilis

Diagnosed cases of syphilis are on the rise across Queensland, more than doubling between 2015 and 2019. Caused by a type of bacteria, syphilis is easily curable but can leave permanent damage if not treated.

The first indication of a syphilis infection are sores or ulcers around the mouth, anus, penis or vagina that are often painless and don’t bleed. They're similar to mouth ulcers, but don’t necessarily hurt.

Other possible symptoms are similar to those you experience when you have the flu. In its later stage, it can cause rashes, swollen glands, wart-like lumps on your body, hair loss, headaches, tiredness and pain in your muscles, joints and bones. Sound bad? It gets worse. If not treated, the signs of syphilis will come and go over years. But regardless, the infection will still be in your body and can lead to serious permanent problems like nerve damage and damage to large vessels near the heart.

A pregnant person with syphilis can also pass it on, causing severe, life-threatening infection in the unborn baby. This is why a syphilis test is routinely recommended for those who are pregnant.

Long-term effects of HIV

Unprotected sex is one of the most common ways to get Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. This virus has a complex history and there is a lot of unnecessary and harmful stigma surrounding it. In reality, there is no need to be scared of or avoid people living with HIV.

HIV can be passed on when infected pre-cum, semen, blood or vaginal fluid enters the body of a person without the virus during sexual activity or sharing injecting equipment. It’s important to know that you can’t catch HIV from kissing, hugging, sharing eating utensils, shaking hands or from any other everyday social contact. It can be passed on during pregnancy and breastfeeding though, so routine HIV testing is recommended for those who are pregnant.

Untreated, HIV can progress to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). This damages the immune system, making the body vulnerable to deadly infections.

There are a number of preventative techniques to lower your risk of getting HIV. These include using condoms when engaging in vaginal and anal sex and talking to your sexual partners about whether they have HIV beforehand. Another prevention method is Pre-exposure Prophylaxis, PrEP, a daily pill that is effective in preventing the HIV virus from becoming established in the body. PrEP is recommended when people are engaging in high risk activities like unprotected anal intercourse.  Post exposure prophylaxis, PEP, is also available to help reduce the risk of getting HIV. This is taken when you think you may have been exposed to HIV, for example, a condom breaks and there is concern the other person is infected.

People living with HIV are able to reduce their risk of passing on HIV to sexual partners through something known as ‘treatment as prevention’ or U=U (Undetectable = Untransmissible).  When a person who has HIV is taking this treatment and has an undetectable viral load (this means very low levels of HIV in their blood test), they are unlikely to pass the virus on through sex. For more information see HIV prevention.

While HIV prevention and treatment has come a really long way in terms of reducing its effects and transmission, it’s important that diagnosis is made sooner than later, so you can get started with treatment.

So I’m having do I  make sure I don’t get an STI?

If you’re having sex, the best way to prevent getting an STI is to use condoms for protection. This includes oral sex, although dental dams are also available. Condoms literally create a barrier between your skin and someone else’s, meaning most STIs can’t get through.

You should also use condoms on sex toys if you’re sharing them or using them in more than one part of the body.

Sounds pretty easy right? And in many ways it is, but let’s be real – it isn’t always simple. Especially when your sexual partner throws you a curve ball with a line like, ‘But sex feels ways better without a condom’.

Coming back from statements like that can be hard and negotiating to have safe sex in the heat of the moment can be tricky. Whether it’s a playful conversation or a more serious one, talking with your partner about condoms and getting regular STI testing is key to taking the worry out of sex and getting on with the fun stuff. Some of these conversation starters may help.

How do I know if I have an STI? 

Some infections are symptomless, so the only way to know for sure if you have an STI is to get tested regularly if you’re having sex. ‘Regularly’ means at least once a year and between every new partner. It’s much better to be in the know than to find out the painful way. If you discover that you do have an STI, you can get on top of it as soon as possible.

The best way to get tested regularly is with a GP. If you don’t want to do this, you could visit a sexual health clinic, True Relationships and Reproductive Health clinic, Aboriginal Medical Services (AMSs) or other community testing sites. If you think you have any STI symptoms, a GP or nearest sexual health clinic are the best options to get tested and treated quickly.

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