Can you tell which
STI you have from symptoms only?
No, at least in most cases. Many symptoms of different STIs
overlap, such as unusual discharge, pain when urinating and soreness and
swelling of the vulva in women or the head of the penis in men. (1) Some STIs
do have their own specific symptoms, such as black powder in underwear with
pubic lice, but it is also important to remember that not everyone with a
particular STI will experience all of the symptoms, and some may have no
symptoms at all! Furthermore, HIV and Hepatitis B don’t cause symptoms, other than
a flu-like illness which may occur a few weeks after infection. All of this is
why it’s important to get tested! (1, 2)
Is there a single
treatment for all STI's?
No. There are
certain STIs that are caused by bacteria, some are caused by viruses, and others
are caused by parasites, so the same treatment won’t work for them all. Also,
different STIs need to be treated for different lengths of time, ranging from
just a week long course of doxycycline (an antibiotic) for some cases of
chlamydia to lifelong treatment with a daily cocktail of antiviral drugs for
Can all STI's be
No. As previously mentioned, people living with HIV need
ongoing treatment with many different antiviral drugs to keep the level of the
virus in their body as low as possible. Genital herpes, as with any other
herpes virus, remains dormant in the body once contracted, undetectable by the
immune system – and can flare up at any time, particularly during times of
stress or ill health. Genital warts are caused by one of several human
papilloma viruses (HPVs) which tend to remain in the skin, even if there are no
visible warts present, and can cause flare ups – although in some people, the
immune system may eliminate the virus eventually. (3)
Conversely, some STIs can be cured very easily with a simple
course of antibiotics, such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea and trichomoniasis.
Can I catch an STI
No. Still, beware of cold sores, which are caused by a type
of herpes virus (usually a different strain to the genital herpes virus) –
these can be passed on through kissing.
Can I catch an STI
from a toilet seat?
No. STIs can’t survive outside of the body for more than a
few seconds (an exception to this rule is Hepatitis B, which can survive
outside the body for at least seven days - but it is not strictly classed as an
STI due to there being several other ways to contract it). (4)
Can I get an STI again
even if I’ve been treated before?
Yes. Courses of treatment for curable STIs are to treat the
current infection and offer no protection against future infections. Likewise,
your body cannot develop immunity to STIs.
Do I need a “test of
cure” for all treatments?
No – only for gonorrhoea. For pubic lice, the affected area
should be checked to ensure there are no live lice one week after treatment
ends. However, for any STI that can be cured with a course of treatment, see
your GP if symptoms persist after you have completed the course. (5, 6)
Are men or women more
likely to catch an STI?
The proportions of men and women being diagnosed with the
various different STIs vary based on the STI in question and also year by year.
Several factors can affect how many men and women are diagnosed with STI's,
including women tending to show fewer symptoms due to most of their genitals
being internal and therefore less visible, and women being more likely than men
to attend an STI test. STI's seem to disproportionately affect homosexual men,
possibly due to less frequent condom use compared with the heterosexual
I’m pregnant, will my
baby be affected?
Many STIs can affect unborn babies during pregnancy or be
passed to the baby during birth.
Chlamydia can cause premature birth or low birth
weight. Transfer from mother to baby during birth can lead to conjunctivitis
and pneumonia. (8)
Gonorrhoea can cause miscarriage or premature
labour. The baby may contract the infection during birth and develop
conjunctivitis (an eye infection). If this is left untreated or treatment is
delayed, the child may suffer from permanent impaired vision or even blindness.
Trichomoniasis may cause low birth weight and
premature birth. (10)
Genital warts can occasionally infect babies
during birth, leading to infection in either the throat or genitals. (3)
Genital herpes can cause neonatal herpes in the
baby. This is a very serious infection and is potentially fatal, but it usually
only develops if the mother contracts genital herpes while she is pregnant.
Syphilis can cause serious complications during
pregnancy, including miscarriage, stillbirth and syphilis infection in the baby
(congenital syphilis). Routine testing for syphilis is available to all
pregnant women in this country for this reason. (12)
If you are pregnant and are in doubt as to whether you may
have an STI, consult your midwife or see your GP.
NHS. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
[cited 1 May 2019]. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sexually-transmitted-infections-stis/
NHS. Pubic lice [cited 1 May 2019]. Available
NHS. Genital warts [cited 1 May 2019]. Available
B Questions and Answers for the Public [cited 1 May 2019]. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hbv/bfaq.htm
NICE CKS. Gonorrhoea [cited 1 May 2019].
Available at: https://cks.nice.org.uk/gonorrhoea#!scenario
NICE CKS. Pubic lice [cited 1 May 2019].
Available at: https://cks.nice.org.uk/pubic-lice#!scenario
FPA. Sexually transmitted infections factsheet
[cited 1 May 2019]. Available at: https://www.fpa.org.uk/factsheets/sexually-transmitted-infections
NHS. Complications: Chlamydia [cited 1 May
2019]. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/chlamydia/complications/
NHS. Complications: Gonorrhoea [cited 1 May
2019]. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/gonorrhoea/complications/
NHS. Trichomoniasis [cited 1 May 2019]. Available
NHS. Genital herpes [cited 1 May 2019].
Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/genital-herpes/
NHS. Syphilis [cited 1 May 2019]. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/syphilis/
Gabby Gallaher MPharm
Superintendent pharmacist Margaret Hudson
7 May 2019