Explainer: STIs, What They are and What They Do
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise in Canada. And many of the conditions that were previously on the decline are seeing a new resurgence (syphilis, we're looking at you), so let’s talk sexual health and what we can do to keep ourselves (and our partners) safe.
Everyone, of any sexual orientation, are vulnerable to contracting STIs — and almost half of all STIs occur in people younger than 25 years old. They also don’t always require penetration to occur.
The number one reason for the increase? Unsafe sex; specifically condomless sex as well as having multiple partners. However, STIs can also be transmitted even if there is no genital contact, and can spread orally, or by sharing needles — or even breastfeeding.
So here’s what you need to know to stay safe:
What are STIs and what happened to STDs?STIs are a more all-encompassing term that includes sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). So many of the conditions that previously would have been called STDs are now simply called STIs. STIs also do include other conditions we also need to be mindful of (viral, bacterial or protozoan).
So which STIs are causing most alarm to health practitioners across Canada?
Read on to find out.
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Explainer: ChlamydiaWhat it is: Chlamydia trachomatis is a common genital or rectal bacterial infection most common in young women. If left untreated, it can lead to serious complications including pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and infertility.
Symptoms: You may have no outward signs or symptoms for a long time, which is what makes this infection particularly dangerous. If there are signs or symptoms, they usually occur one to two weeks after exposure to the bacteria, and are so mild, people often overlook them.
- Painful urination
- Lower abdominal pain
- Vaginal discharge in women
- Discharge from the penis in men
- Painful sexual intercourse in women
- Bleeding between periods and after sex in women
- Testicular pain in men
Treatment available: Chlamydia is not difficult to treat with antibiotics once you know you have it (one more reason why regular visits to the doctor are important).
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Explainer: Genital HerpesWhat it is: Caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV), this chronic infection is caused by a virus that is different from your common cold sore, but is similar in that it causes sores. Unfortunately, the preferred location for this nasty little virus are your genitals. Once a person is infected, the virus lies dormant in the body, only to reactivate when there is a trigger (such as stress). Different individuals are more sensitive to the virus and have more frequent outbreaks.
Symptoms: Not all individuals have symptoms, and even if they don’t, they may still be infectious. Common symptoms include:
Treatment available: There is no cure, but medication can ease symptoms and reduce the risk of infecting others.
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Explainer: Genital warts or human papillomavirus (HPV)What it is: More than 100 viruses can cause skin or mucous membrane growths (warts). While some types of HPV cause warts, others can cause different types of cancer (including throat cancer). These viruses can aslo spread through skin-to-skin contact.
Symptoms: Flat lesions and Cauliflower-like bumps
Treatment available: Vaccines can protect against some times of HPV including those most likely to cause genital warts and cervical cancer.
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Explainer: GonorrheaWhat it is: Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection that most often affects the urethra, rectum or throat. In women, gonorrhea can also infect the cervix. Complications include infertility in both men and women, complications in babies, increased risk of HIV/AIDS and the spread to joints.
Symptoms: Like Chlamydia, Gonorrhea may not cause any symptoms (some may not even know they have it). In women, the following may occur:
Increased vaginal discharge
Vaginal bleeding between periods, such as after vaginal intercourse
Abdominal or pelvic pain
Treatment available: Adults are treated with antibiotics, however, there is a rise in drug-resistant strains, and this is making some cases much more difficult to treat.
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Explainer: Hepatitis B (HBV)What it is: While there are several forms of the hepatitis virus (say that three times fast), this form causes a serious infection of the liver. For some people, it can become a chronic condition, lasting more than six months. Complications include liver failure and even liver cancer.
Symptoms: The symptoms can range from mild to severe and can occur any time from one to four months following exposure. These symptoms include:
Loss of appetite
Nausea and vomiting
Weakness and fatigue
Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice)
Treatment available: Depending on the form and severity of the infection (and whether it’s chronic), a doctor may recommend antiviral medication, immunoglobulin (an antibody) injections or, in extreme cases, a liver transplant.
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Explainer: SyphilisWhat it is: Syphilis is a bacterial infection that begins as a painless sore on your genitals, rectum or mouth. The disease spreads through contact with these sores. It is a chronic condition, that much like genital herpes, can remain dormant in the body (even for decades) before flaring up again.
Symptoms: The first symptoms usually develop about three weeks after exposure.
Treatment available: If caught in its early stages, syphilis can be cured. Sometimes a single injection of penicillin is enough. However, if left untreated, it can wreak havoc on your heart, brain and other organs, and can become life-threatening.
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Explainer: TrichomoniasisWhat it is: Trichomoniasis is a parasitic infection that can foul-smelling vaginal discharge, genital itching and painful urination (men typically don’t experience symptoms). This infection can cause birth complications and make females more vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS.
Symptoms: Foul-smelling discoloured discharge (white, gray, yellow or green)
Redness and a burning or itching sensation of the genitals
Pain during urination
Pain during sex
Treatment available: Most often, doctors will prescribe the drugs metronidazole or tinidazole to treat the infection.
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Explainer: Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDSWhat it is: The HIV virus can lead to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) - a chronic, life-threatening condition. The virus first damages the immune system, diminishing the body’s ability to fight off organisms that cause disease.
Symptoms: Most infected people develop flu-like symptoms about one to two months following exposure to the virus. These include:
Muscle aches and joint pain
Sore throat and painful mouth sores
Swollen lymph glands, mainly on the neck
Treatment available: While scientists are working hard to develop a cure, there still appears to be no definitive such treatment. However, there are medications that can dramatically slow the progression of the disease.
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Explainer: Molluscum contagiosumWhat it is: A relatively common and highly contagious viral infection, molluscum is a skin infection that can spread through sexual contact and that causes round, painless bumps on the genitals. If the bumps are scratched or injured, the infection can spread to surrounding skin. The infection can also spread through infected objects.
Symptoms: Round, flesh-coloured, firm, painless ‘wax-like’ bumps ranging in size from pin to pencil eraser
Bumps may be itchy
Treatment available: While the condition can resolve on its own in about six to 12 months, the infected person remains a risk to others, and can continue developing bumps for up to five years. Doctors may recommend that the bumps be removed through cryotherapy (freezing) or through administering a medicine that causes blisters. However, both of these methods can be painful.
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Explainer: Scabies and pubic liceWhat it is: Scabies is an extremely contagious and itchy skin condition caused by skin lice (mites) that burrow and cause your body to have an allergic reaction in response.
Symptoms: Intense itching or burning sensation (especially at night)
Thin, irregular burrow tracks made of tiny blisters or bumps often found where inside skin folds (between fingers, armpits, or groin)
Treatment available: The treatment includes eliminating the infestation and often requires a combination of topical creams or pills, as well as the removal and disinfection of exposed clothes, bedding and surfaces.
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