Many people think that only the promiscuous get sexually transmitted infections (STIs), yet it can take only one encounter with an infected person to become infected yourself. The most dangerous sexually transmitted disease is the one you don’t know you have.
If you have had multiple partners, unprotected sex, had a condom tear during intercourse, a partner with an STI, or if your partner is sleeping with other people, you are at risk of an STI. The only problem is that most STIs do not present obvious symptoms.
Check the chart of common STIs to find out if you have a symptom worth checking out with your health care professional. They can prescribe antibiotics to treat gonorrhea, chlamydia, or syphilis, or a medicated shampoo to treat scabies or pubic lice. Supplements can be effective in supporting healthy immune system function and for prevention of long-term complications.
Don’t be shy: ask your new sexual partner about STIs. Knowing you are at risk will allow you to take precautions (such as using condoms) that can keep you safe from infections and ready for rapid treatment, if necessary.
The Most Common STIs
According to Health Canada, more than 20 different infectious agents can be acquired or spread through sexual contact. The most common infections include:
- Chlamydia, caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis, is the most common STI in the world. In Canada, nearly 63,000 cases of chlamydia were reported in 2004, the highest number since reporting started in 1990. Most women and some men do not experience symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they usually appear within one to three weeks.
- Gonorrhea, the second most common STI in Canada, is caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhea. Most cases appear in teens and young adults. Like chlamydia, many women do not experience symptoms, while men typically manifest symptoms within two to five days after an infection. Gonorrhea may lead to infertility in both men and women if not treated.
- Syphilis, although less common than other STIs, still remains a concern. As early as 1996, the elimination of this bacterial infection was a recognized goal of national health organizations. Unfortunately, rates have risen steadily since, and in 2004 the national infectious syphilis rate was almost nine times the rate reported in 1997. Almost 90 percent of all cases in 2004 occurred in males. Syphilis begins with one or more sores at the initial place of infection and, if left untreated, leads to permanent damage to the brain, heart, bones, joints, and nervous system.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV) is common in Canada, especially among teens and young adults. It is estimated that 75 percent of Canadians will have at least one HPV infection in their lifetime that can cause genital warts or lead to cancer. Many people with HPV have no obvious signs of infection, but regular Pap smears for women are important to identify changes in the cells of the cervix and to allow for proper treatment.
- Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus, which is related to the virus that causes cold sores. It tends to be an opportunistic infection that erupts when someone carrying the virus is under stress or has poor lifestyle habits. Lesions tend to develop around the genitals, anus, thighs, buttocks, or mouth, and are preceded with a tingling or burning sensation.
- Trichomonas vaginalis is a parasite that causes a vaginal infection called trichomoniasis. Symptoms include an inflamed, sore, and itchy vagina, sometimes with unusual discharge. Some Trichomonas infections can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease. Though most men infected with Trichomonas do not display obvious symptoms, urethral discharge or painful, urgent urination can occur.
- Scabies and pubic lice are tiny insects that are spread through sexual contact but also through shared bedding, clothing, or bath towels. They cause itching and rashes in the genital area and elsewhere on the body.