Could you have an STD?
Posted on 1 February 2023
Practicing safe sex is your best defence against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). As some STDs don’t cause symptoms, the only way to confirm your status is to get tested.
As the name suggests, STDs are spread mainly through sexual contact. This includes vaginal, anal, and oral sex. “Some infections can also be spread by non-sexual means – for example, from mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth,” says Dr Fulufhelo Tshivhula, an obstetrician and gynaecologist at Mediclinic Limpopo.“People living with HIV have a higher risk of contracting an STD as the human immunodeficiency virus attacks cells in the immune system, your body’s natural defence against illness.”
Dr Tshivhula adds that symptoms can develop within a few days or weeks, but sometimes only show up months or even years later. Often there are few or no symptoms. “If you think you might have contracted an STD, go to your Mediclinic doctor for a confidential check-up,” he says. “If untreated, STDs can have devastating effects on sexual, reproductive, and general health.” Even if you have no symptoms, you should get checked if:
- You’ve had unprotected sex with a new partner.
- You or your sexual partner have had sex with someone else without using a condom.
- Your sexual partner has any symptoms.
- You’re planning to get pregnant and you may have been at risk of infection.
Dr Tshivhula stresses that HIV, a widespread problem in South Africa, is also classified as an STD. Other common STDs include:
- Genital herpes. Marked by painful sores and blisters. Although there’s no cure, it can be successfully treated. “This is one of the most common STIs in South Africa and is caused by a virus, which is inactive for the majority of the time,” says Dr Tshivhula. “However, herpes sufferers can experience bursts of painful sores or blisters in the genital area from time to time. Genital herpes is the leading cause of genital ulcer disease worldwide and may increase the risk of HIV transmission.”
- Human papillomavirus (HPV). Doesn’t usually cause symptoms and is preventable by a vaccine. There are more than 100 types of HPV, some of which cause genital warts and several of which cause cancer of the cervix, mouth and throat and increase the risk of anal and penile cancers in men.
- A bacterial infection that usually starts as a painless sore, a rash on the palms of the hands and on the soles of the feet. There may also be no symptoms.
- Usually causes genital discharge and painful urination, but it may also present without symptoms. This is a treatable STD that can cause infection in the genitals, rectum, mouth, and throat. If left untreated it can cause serious health problems and even infertility.
- One of the infections people often don’t know they have because it may not cause symptoms. “However, it can cause pain during urination and unusual discharge or vaginal bleeding, says Dr Tshivhula. “It’s easily treated and cured. However, if left untreated, it can cause damage to reproductive organs and long-term complications, such as infertility.
- Genital wartsare caused by the HPV. The characteristic symptom is small bumps on the genitals.
How do I know if I’m carrying an STD?
Dr Tshivhula says signs and symptoms of an infection might include:
- Discharge from penis or vagina
- Swollen glands, body aches and fever
- Warts or sores on/around penis or vagina
- Pains or burning when urinating
- Pain while having sex
- Rash or itching in and around pubic area.
- Small blisters on and around penis or vagina
- Weight loss
- Mild to severe lower abdominal pain, sometimes fever, with or without vaginal discharge
- Swollen scrotum.
What’s the treatment?
Bacterial STDs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and syphilis, can be cured with antibiotics if treatment begins early enough. Viral STDs, such as human papillomavirus (HPV), genital herpes, and HIV cannot be cured, but you can manage symptoms with medication. There is a vaccine against HPV, but it won’t help if you already have the disease.
How to avoid STDs
Using a condom correctly every time you have sex can help you avoid STDs. “However, although condoms lessen the risk of infection for all STDs, you still can get certain STDs, like herpes or HPV, from contact with your partner’s skin even when using a condom,” Dr Tshivhula cautions. “Agree to have a monogamous relationship with your partner and before having sex, make sure you both get tested to ensure neither of you has an STD.”