Sexually transmitted infections (STIs): The basics

Sexual Wellness


Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), which used to be known as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), are a group of infections similar to one another only in that they can be "caught" through sexual contact. STIs are caused by different organisms, usually bacteria or viruses, and have a wide variety of symptoms. Some can be cured with antibiotics. Others cannot be cured – only controlled. The following are the STIs usually seen in North America.

  • Chlamydia is a very common sexually transmitted infection in North America, affecting both men and women, especially those in their teen or young adult years. Chlamydia is caused by a bacterium called Chlamydia trachomatis. It is contracted by having unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal sex with an infected person. Even if you are infected, you may not be aware of it. If you are female, symptoms include a change or increase in vaginal discharge, vaginal itchiness or bleeding, lower abdominal pain, and pain during urination. Males may notice painful urination, testicular pain, a watery or milky discharge from the penis, or burning and itching. It's easily treated with antibiotics, but it can sometimes lead to serious complications such as infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), and Reiter's syndrome (an arthritis-like condition) if it isn't caught early enough. It can also be passed on to a newborn baby during delivery.
  • Gonorrhea is another very common STI in North America. It is contracted the same way as chlamydia and has very similar symptoms (males may notice a thick greenish-yellow discharge from the penis). Quite often, people infected with chlamydia are also infected with gonorrhea. As with chlamydia, gonorrhea can lead to serious complications in women, such as infertility and PID. Gonorrhea is caused by bacteria, and it can be treated with antibiotics. The disease can affect mucous linings in the vagina, cervix, penis, rectum, throat, and eyes. Gonorrhea is also known as "the clap."
  • Syphilis used to be a leading cause of death and disability but it's much less common today in the age of antibiotics. However, the rate of infection is on the rise, especially in men. Syphilis causes painless sores (called chancres) on the genitals, or in the vagina, rectum, and mouth. A body rash can also be seen. It is passed on from person to person through contact with the sores or rashes. It is very dangerous during pregnancy, as it can be passed on to an unborn baby, leading to birth defects or death. Therefore, screening of the mother for syphilis is a routine practice that occurs in all provinces. It can be treated with antibiotics if caught early. If left untreated, it can come back later to cause damage to the heart, nerves, brain, bone, joints, liver, and blood vessels. Syphilis is also known as "syph" (and in some older literature it is known as "the pox").
  • HIV is the viral infection that can cause AIDS. The virus attacks cells of the immune system, leaving a person defenceless against many other infections and their complications. The virus can be found in the blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk. HIV can be contracted through unprotected sex, sharing needles or other drug equipment, or items like razor blades or toothbrushes that have blood on them. A person cannot get HIV by hugging, kissing, shaking hands, or sharing toilet seats. People who have HIV may not know about it for years, but sometimes develop mild flu-like symptoms 2 to 4 weeks after becoming infected. There is no cure, but antiretroviral medications can be used to control the progression of the disease.
  • Hepatitis B is caused by a virus that infects the liver. Hep B is passed on from an infected person through blood, semen, vaginal fluid, or saliva. It can also be passed on by sharing personal items like toothbrushes or razors, or by sharing needles or tattoo equipment. A mother can also pass Hep B on to their unborn baby. Some general symptoms of Hep B include tiredness, abdominal pain, discoloured urine or stool, yellowish skin and eyes (jaundice), loss of appetite, and nausea. It can lead to chronic liver disease and liver cancer. Most people who are infected do not have any symptoms, but they can still pass the virus on. It cannot be cured, but a vaccine is available to help prevent it.
  • Genital herpes, which produces cold-sore-type skin lesions in the genital area, is also caused by a virus (known as herpes simplex virus, HSV, types 1 or 2). It can be contracted by having oral sex with someone who has cold sores on their mouth. You can also get herpes in your eyes, mouth, and genitals by touching the sores. It can be passed on to an unborn baby, but there are medications available to reduce the risk of infecting the baby during pregnancy. The condition comes and goes, with skin lesions "flaring up" from time to time. Re-infection may occur if you are under stress, ill, feverish, or exposed to too much sunlight. You may notice itching or tingling on the skin, followed by the development of painful blisters. There is no cure, but antiviral medications are available to treat the outbreaks and reduce the frequency of flare-ups, and some can reduce the risk of transmission of the virus (in other words, it can reduce the risk of passing on genital herpes to a sex partner).
  • Chancroid, a bacterial infection of the genitals that causes painful sores, was once rare in North America. But it has cropped up more frequently in recent years. It can be treated with antibiotics.
  • Crabs, also known as pubic lice, are lice (tiny, wingless insects) that live in the genital area. They can be treated with medication.
  • HPV, or human papillomavirus, is a virus that affects the skin in the genital area, causing wart-like growths. It can also affect a woman's cervix, and it increases the risk of cancer of the cervix. It is important for women to have regular Pap tests (usually at their yearly physical exam) to catch any precancerous changes (changes in the cells of the cervix that may lead to cancer) so that they can be treated before they develop into cancer. HPV can also infect men as well, leading to wart-like growths, as well as penile or anal cancers. There are vaccines available that help your immune system prevent some types of HPV infection.

  • Trichomoniasis is caused by a parasite. It usually causes no symptoms in men, although many women have symptoms. It can cause infection of the uterus and fallopian tubes, possibly leading to infertility. In pregnancy it can cause a baby to be born early or have low birth weight. Some symptoms include strange vaginal or penis discharge, painful sex (for females), itchiness of the vagina or penis, or burning while urinating. It can be cured with antibiotics.

Many STIs can lead to health problems later on if they are not found and treated. Being infected with HPV can increase a woman's risk of cervical cancer. Chlamydia can lead to infertility and long-term pain in women by damaging the fallopian tubes, which are an important part of the reproductive system. HIV/AIDS eventually destroys the immune system, leading to an increased risk of infections, cancers, and death. Therefore, it is very important to practice safe sex.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2024. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source:

How can I tell if I have an STI?

Sexual Wellness


STI symptoms can vary considerably, depending on the infection. Many STIs have no symptoms at all. These can be quite dangerous, since you may pass them on or leave them untreated because you are not aware of them. In other cases, the symptoms may not show up for weeks to months.

STIs can also have symptoms that are similar to those of other diseases that have nothing to do with sex. If you think you may have been at risk for an STI, some symptoms you may have are:

  • sores, bumps or blisters near your genitals, anus or mouth
  • burning or pain when you urinate
  • itching, bad smell, dripping, or unusual discharge from your genitals or anus
  • pain in your lower abdomen
  • for women: bleeding from your vagina between your menstrual periods

If you have no symptoms, but are concerned that you may have been exposed to an STI, the only way to find out for sure is to be tested. Check with your doctor or the local clinic about testing for STIs. You may also be able to find out about confidential testing services in your area by searching online for sexual health clinics. It is also a good idea to ask to be screened for STIs at your annual physical exam.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2024. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source:

Protect yourself from STIs

Sexual Wellness


STIs, also known as STDs, are spread through body fluids and, sometimes, by skin-to-skin contact with infected areas. Birth control pills, the "morning after pill," and many other contraceptive devices do not provide any protection against STIs, since they only protect against pregnancy.

If you choose to be sexually active, the best protection against STIs (also known as STDs) is a latex condom. Condoms provide good protection against STIs for vaginal and anal sex. Female condoms are also available. For oral sex, a dental dam (a flat piece of latex used for dental work) can be used in the mouth as a barrier to bacteria and viruses. Condoms work very well, but they are not 100% effective in preventing STIs. They may break or slip off, and they do not cover the entire genital area. Some STIs may cause sores in genital areas not covered by the condom, and you could still be infected.

Condoms work best if used properly. Here are a few tips:

  • open the package carefully so that you don't tear the condom
  • store condoms in a cool place (not your wallet or your car)
  • don't use condoms that are past their expiration date – they are more likely to break
  • don't re-use condoms.
  • use water-based lubricants (like K-Y Jelly or Astroglide), not oil-based ones (like petroleum jelly); oil-based lubricants may cause the condom to break
  • remember to leave some space (about one finger's width) near the tip of the condom, when you use it as instructed on the packaging

Even if someone does not have any visible sores or other symptoms, they may still be infected with an STI that they could pass on to you. Unless you are in a mutually monogamous relationship (neither of you is having sex with anyone else), and you are sure that neither of you has any STIs, be sure to use a condom every time you have sex. No method is 100% effective at preventing infection. That's why it is important to talk to your sexual partners about STIs.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2024. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source:

What if I'm infected?

Sexual Wellness


If you think you might have an STI (previously known as an STD), the first step is to get tested. It is best to go to your own doctor for testing, because he or she will know your medical history and will be best able to advise and treat you. If you are not comfortable talking to your own doctor, you may choose to visit another clinic, or check to see what STI testing services are available in your area by searching for sexual health clinics online.

Since STIs may occur in groups, the doctor will probably test for a number of different infections. This may involve taking swabs of the genital area, taking fluid samples from sores, and getting urine or blood samples. If you have been infected, you will need to tell all of the people you have had sex with, so that they can also be tested and treated. Although this can be difficult to do, it is important that your sexual partner(s) be informed. If they are infected and don't receive the proper treatment, serious complications may develop and they may unknowingly pass on the infection to others.

The next step is treatment. Some STIs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis can be cured with antibiotics. Others, like HIV, HPV, herpes, and hepatitis B, are caused by viruses and cannot be cured. However, they can be treated and managed. Treatments for viruses include pills, creams, freezing or cauterizing of the affected area, and surgery. Be sure to finish your full course of treatment, even if you begin to feel better. Find out when it will be safe to start having sex again, and talk to your doctor about ways to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections in the future.

If your STI cannot be cured, you will need to talk about this with your sexual partner(s). To prevent infection of your partner(s), you will need to use condoms and dental dams when having sex. For some STIs, there may be other steps you can take to avoid infecting your partner – check with your doctor. In some cases, couples where one partner is infected may decide to risk infection of the other partner, especially if they are trying to get pregnant. If this is the case, you should talk to your doctor. Even if your STI can be cured, it is important to protect yourself and others from being infected again.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2024. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source: