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6 common STIs and their treatments

13 Aug 2020

Looking after your sexual health is always important – especially as some sexually transmitted infections take time to show up, while others have no symptoms at all

Why should I get tested?

Some STIs, such as chlamydia, can have no symptoms. Yet if left untreated, they can have serious consequences. The good news is they are all treatable by a doctor.

So, to protect yourself, always get tested if you’ve had unprotected sex with a new partner. Using a barrier method such as male or female condoms with a new partner is still the best way to avoid getting an STI.

Here are 6 common STIs (sometimes called STDs), their symptoms, how they are tested and their treatments.

1. Chlamydia

Symptoms

When they do show, in women these might include: pain when urinating; unusual vaginal discharge; pain in the abdomen or pelvis; or, extra sensitivity during sex, bleeding after sex and bleeding between periods. If chlamydia is left untreated, it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can cause ectopic pregnancy and infertility in women.

Men should look out for pain when urinating, white, cloudy or watery discharge from the tip of the penis, burning or itching in the urethra and pain in the testicles. Left untreated, the infection can cause swelling in the epididymis (the tubes that carry sperm) and the testicles. This might affect fertility. Chlamydia can also affect the throat, although this is rare, rectum (via anal sex) and eyes.

Testing

Involves a urine or swab test. You can be tested through a local sexual health clinic, a contraceptive clinic or your GP. If you’re under 25 you can get a kit sent to you free via pharmacies and other local venues. Search for venues near you.

Treatment

Usually a one-week course of antibiotics. You should avoid sex until the infection is gone.

2. Gonorrhoea

Gonorrhoea is caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae or gonococcus, which is spread through unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex, or contact with genital fluid, including sharing sex toys. Less commonly, it can affect the throat or eyes. If passed on during labour, it can cause permanent blindness in a newborn.

Symptoms

Include a thick green or yellow discharge from the vagina or penis, pain when urinating or lower abdominal/vaginal pain and discomfort. Around 1 in 10 men and more than half of women do not experience any symptoms.

Testing

Completed by a swab test or can be a urine test in men. Left untreated, gonorrhoea can lead to PID and infertility in women.

Treatment

For gonorrhoea is an antibiotic injection (in the buttocks or thighs) followed by an antibiotic tablet.

3. Syphilis

Syphilis is a chronic infectious disease caused by Treponema pallidum, a type of bacterium. It’s most commonly spread during sex (vaginal, anal or oral) or through close contact with an infected sore. It can be passed on from mother to baby (congenital syphilis) with an increased risk of miscarriage, fetal death and premature birth.

Symptoms

Include a small, painless sore or ulcer on the vagina, penis, anus, mouth or other area (21 days after incubation). This resolves spontaneously after 1-2 months and is followed after 6-8 weeks by flu-like symptoms – fatigue, headache, fever, joint pains and swollen glands usually a couple of months after being infected. Left untreated, syphilis can spread to the brain and other parts of the body many years after infection.

Testing

Involves a physical genital examination, a blood test and swab test (if there are any sores).

Treatment

Includes a penicillin injection or (if you’re allergic to penicillin) a 10-14 day course of antibiotics. If you’ve had syphilis for longer than 2 years or symptoms are more serious, you might need weekly or even daily injections or a longer course of antibiotics (28 days).

4. Genital herpes

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex viruses (there are two: HSV-1 and HSV-2). They’re passed on through sexual contact (vagina, penis, anus, mouth). People can pass on the herpes virus when they’re not showing any symptoms.

Symptoms

Include small, fluid-filled blisters (on the genitals or anus) leaving open sores. These burst and cause severe tingling and itching, burning when urinating and women might have a vaginal discharge. Symptoms may take months or even years to appear after you’ve become infected. These clear up by themselves (usually within 2 weeks) but come back periodically. Recurrent outbreaks are usually milder.

Testing

Is carried out by swabbing fluid from blisters.

Treatment

There is no cure for herpes and it can lie dormant in the body for months or years. You might be prescribed antiviral medicine to stop symptoms worsening. Local anaesthetic ointment and soothing creams might also be prescribed to help alleviate itching and pain. Taking a cool shower or bath might also help.

5. Genital warts and HPV

Genital warts are caused by the HPV (human papillomavirus), a type of virus that infects the skin. There are hundreds of different types of HPV but around 13 types can cause cancer, including cervical cancer in women. The strain of HPV that causes cervical cancer doesn’t cause genital warts. So, having these doesn’t mean you’re at increased risk of cancer. But it is still important for women to have regular cervical screenings.
The best way to avoid becoming infected with HPV is to use a condom. But in the UK there is also a HPV vaccination programme for girls and boys aged 12 and 13 which should lead to the reduction of cancer-causing types of HPV.

Symptoms

Include one or more lumps, bumps or fleshy, cauliflower-like growths around the genitals or anus. There might also be discomfort, itching or bleeding, and changes to the flow of urine.

Testing

For genetial warts, testing is done by a physical examination of the genital area.

Treatment

May include the application of a prescription cream or liquid over several weeks, or surgery where warts are cut, burnt, lasered or frozen off.

6. HIV

Human immunodeficiency virus affects the cells in your immune system and their ability to fight everyday infections and disease. HIV infection is found in body fluids and is most commonly transmitted through sexual contact. It can also be passed on by sharing needles (among drug addicts) and can be passed on from mother to baby.

Symptoms

Most people experience a short flu-like illness around 2-6 weeks after initial infection. HIV might not cause any symptoms for many years. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) describes the potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that might occur when your immune system is severely damaged by the HIV virus.

Testing

For HIV, testing is done by taking a sample of blood or saliva to check for the infection.

Treatment

There’s no cure for HIV but there are now effective drug treatments to manage it. These include antiretroviral medicines that work by stopping the virus from replicating itself in the body, allowing the immune system to repair itself. This means people with HIV can usually lead long lives if they take medication.

Reviewed by: Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP, Livi

Last updated:
13 Aug 2020

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