There are times where we might play the ‘wait and see’ game, but it’s not wise to gamble when it comes to sexual health. Paying attention to changes to your body and taking action when things don’t seem right is important because sexual health isn’t just about you – it’s about your partners’ health, too.
But as you’ll see, being smart about sexually transmissible infections (STIs) is more than just looking for odd bumps and lumps.
What are STIs?
STIs are infections that can be transmitted during sexual intercourse, including vaginal, anal and oral sex. They occur when viruses, bacteria or parasites pass from one person’s body to another’s during sex or intimate skin-on-skin contact. Some STIs affect an isolated area only, like the genitals, while others can spread and cause damage in other parts of the body.
How do I spot an STI?
You might be surprised to learn that most STIs don’t have symptoms. This means you can’t necessarily tell if you or your sexual partner has an STI just by looking. That’s why regular sexual health check-ups are essential.
Because STIs are so common and testing is quick and easy, many clinicians suggest getting an STI test every 6–12 months, when you change partners, or if you have any symptoms that you’re concerned about.
It's also important to know that being treated for STIs doesn’t stop you from getting them again.
Queensland’s most common STIs, and their symptoms in men
STI symptoms can be different between men and women. We’ll take a closer look at men’s symptoms here, but for more information check out our blog on Queensland’s most commonly diagnosed STIs.
If you’ve got odd lumps in intimate places, there’s a chance it’s either genital herpes or genital warts. Both are caused by viruses and can be transmitted through unprotected vaginal, oral and anal sex or intimate skin-on-skin contact.
Genital herpes is a very common STI. In fact, it’s estimated that 1 in 10 sexually active adults in Australia have genital herpes. The virus that causes genital herpes can lay dormant in the body for many years. This means you might have symptoms straight away, or not for many years after contracting it.
For men, the typical symptoms of genital herpes include:
- outbreaks of small, painful blisters
- outbreaks of a rash that looks like cracked skin
- stinging or tingling in the infected area
- difficulty urinating.
After first contracting the virus, you may also experience flu-like symptoms such as fever, headaches and swollen glands.
Symptoms typically occur in episodes, with each lasting around 7 to 10 days. Currently there is no cure for genital herpes, but treatments are available that can reduce the length and severity of each episode. The virus that causes genital herpes stays in the body for the rest of your life, and the symptoms can recur over time. For more information, watch our animation about herpes.
Genital warts can be caused by different types of human papillomavirus (HPV). The HPV strains that cause genital warts are different to those that are associated with certain cancers.
For men, genital warts can appear on the penis, scrotum, or anus. Genital warts can be:
- bumpy, flat, or appear in clusters
- painless, but are sometimes painful, itchy, or uncomfortable.
Wart treatments are available, but only your immune system can clear the virus. This means the virus can linger even if the warts aren’t visible.
Chlamydia is the most common bacterial STI in Queensland and in the world. In Australia, the vast majority of chlamydia infections in young people remain undiagnosed and therefore untreated. Without treatment, it can lead to serious health issues down the track, including infertility, yet most uncomplicated chlamydia infections are easy to treat with a single dose of antibiotics.
For men, the symptoms of chlamydia can include:
- discharge from the penis
- discomfort or irritation at the tip of the penis from the urethra
- pain when urinating
- swollen and sore testes
- pain in the rectum and discharge from the anus if spread through anal sex.
People who have contracted chlamydia may not have any symptoms at all. For more information, watch our animation about chlamydia.
In Australia, it’s estimated that 1 in 20 young people have new chlamydia infections in a year (including reinfections) and three quarters are undiagnosed and therefore untreated.
Gonorrhoea is another STI that can occur without symptoms and it is on the rise in Queensland. Untreated gonorrhoea infections are not only potentially uncomfortable and unpleasant, but they can also lead to serious issues down the track. Gonorrhoea can infect the testes and lead to infertility. It can also increase the risk of HIV transmission.
For men, the symptoms of gonorrhoea can include:
- a yellow discharge from the penis
- pain and/or burning sensation when urinating
- swollen and sore testes.
If contracted through anal sex, the symptoms of gonorrhoea can include:
- pain in the rectum (the end of the large intestine that joins to the anus)
- discharge or mucus from the anus, which might be bloody
- feeling of fullness in the lower bowel.
If contracted through oral sex, the symptoms of gonorrhoea can include:
- a sore, red throat
- pus on the tonsils.
Symptoms can appear but then go away after a couple of weeks, but that doesn’t mean the infection is gone. Only antibiotics can clear a gonorrhoea infection and most uncomplicated infections are easy to treat with a single dose of antibiotics. However, some types of gonorrhoea are resistant to some drugs and can therefore be more complex to treat. For more information, watch our animation about gonorrhoea.
Syphilis is also on the rise in Queensland. Like chlamydia and gonorrhoea, you can have it and not experience any symptoms. It’s a serious infection that, if left untreated, can be fatal. Syphilis presents in three stages, each with its own list of possible symptoms.
Early on, you might get sores, rashes and ulcers of different shapes and sizes. You might think it’s genital herpes or a really bad heat rash and the sores might go away, but if it is syphilis, the infection is still in the body.
After 2-6 months, the symptoms of syphilis infection can include:
- a flu-like illness
- a rash on the abdomen, palms and soles of feet
- swollen glands
- wart-like lumps around the moist areas of the body (groin, armpits)
- hair loss
- pains in the muscles, bones and joints.
These symptoms might also go away on their own, but the infection remains. Over time, an untreated syphilis infection can spread to other internal organs like the heart and brain, causing serious and even life-threatening complications.
Syphilis is a particularly dangerous infection for pregnant women as it can cause congenital syphilis for the baby. Congenital syphilis can be life threatening to babies. If your partner is pregnant or hoping to be pregnant one day, you can protect her reproductive health by taking care of your own.
For more information, watch our animation about syphilis.
Using condoms reduces the risk of passing on STIs during sexual intercourse and oral sex.
What to do if you think you might have an STI
By now it should be obvious that STIs aren’t just about lumps. They can be serious, and some stay with you for life. The list of STIsis long, and the symptoms can vary, which is why regular sexual health checks are essential in protecting your overall health.
If you think you have an STI, or if you haven’t been tested in a while, book in for a sexual health check with your doctor. Don’t worry, they’ve seen it all before, and the sooner you get in and have it sorted, the better. STIs can usually be easily treated with medications like antibiotics. For those that can’t, your doctor can help you manage your symptoms and reduce the risk of transmitting the infection to others.
You can also order a free urine test online for chlamydia and gonorrhoea through the 13 HEALTH webtest program. There are two options to provide urine for a webtest:
- Download a pathology form and give a urine sample at your local pathology collection centre. This is the quickest way to get your results.
- Order a home mailing kit and post your urine sample in the reply-paid envelope to be analysed.
The webtest program doesn’t replace a sexual health check, but it can be useful if you can’t get to a health service. 13 HEALTH webtest cannot test for syphilis or HIV, or for throat and anal infections.
If you find out you’ve contracted an STI, you should talk to any current or past sexual partners so they can get tested and treated too. Your doctor can give advice on who you need to tell and how to tell them, and this guide on contact tracing may help as well. In some cases it might be better for a health professional to contact partners for you, so talk to them about this option if you are concerned.
Even if you don’t think you have an STI, if you’re sexually active and don’t use a condom every time, commit to getting a sexual health check at least once a year. Remember that many people with STIs don’t experience symptoms. It’s only through regular testing that you can be sure you’re STI-free.