STIs: The symptoms and dangers of common sexually transmitted infections, and how to treat them

The last thing you want to think about when you're getting up close and personal with a new love is a sexually transmitted infection, but the truth is STIs are a reality for many Australians.

Research by the Kirby Institute shows the rates of gonorrhoea and infectious syphilis are on the rise, highlighting the need to be aware of the diseases you might be at risk of contracting or passing on, and knowing how to prevent, diagnose and treat infections.

Seeking advice if you think you might be at risk is important, even if it makes you feel nervous or squeamish, says Associate Professor Martin Holt, who co-authored the UNSW's Annual Report of Trends in Behaviour.

"The massive problem with all of this stuff is that people can feel embarrassed or ashamed about talking about sexual health or admitting that they've been having casual sex, and that can delay them going forward for screenings," he said.

"In the majority of cases everything is fine, and even if there is something, it can usually be easily treated.

"If you're worried about going to your GP, then go to a sexual health clinic. They'll make you feel at ease and guide you through the process."

Which STIs should you worry about?

  • Chlamydia: One of the most common STIs in Australia, and one of the sneakiest, as it often has no symptoms. However, it can cause genital pain in men and women, and lead to infertility in women. It's treated with antibiotics.
  • Gonorrhoea: Previously rare in young, urban heterosexuals, this disease is up 63 per cent in this group over the past five years. It can cause genital and anal pain and discharge in both men and women, as well as a sore, dry throat. Untreated, it can lead to fertility problems for women. It's treated with antibiotics.
  • Syphilis: This bacterial infection causes various symptoms including sores, rashes and fever. Left untreated, it can eventually lead to serious damage to organs including the brain and heart. Syphilis is seeing a resurgence, especially among young Indigenous Australians. It's treated with penicillin, with repeat blood tests to make sure the treatment has worked.
  • HIV: Once considered a death sentence, this virus is stable in Australia, with gay and bisexual men (a high-risk group) increasingly using HIV medications to prevent its spread. HIV can't be cured, but it can be managed with antiretroviral treatment.
  • Herpes: This is a common skin infection that has mild symptoms for most people, including blisters and stinging or tingling in the affected area. You can't cure herpes, but most people will find the recurrences become milder and less frequent, and many eventually have no symptoms at all. Severe outbreaks can be treated with antivirals.
  • Hepatitis B: This inflammation of the liver can lead to fever, fatigue, jaundice and nausea — but half of people with the infection don't have symptoms, which is why it's important to get checked. There is no cure for Hepatitis B, although most infected people make a full recovery. It can turn into a serious health problem for a small percentage of people, and can also be passed from a mother to her unborn baby. The best protection against Hepatitis B is to get immunised.
  • Trichomonas: This infection is caused by a parasite and can lead to vaginal itching, burning and smelly discharge. It's common in remote Indigenous communities but rare elsewhere in Australia. It's treated with antimicrobial tablets.

The most effective way of avoiding these infections if you're having penetrative sex is to use a condom.

But Dr Holt warned that even consistently using condoms isn't a get-out-of-jail free card for avoiding STIs — you should still get checked regularly.

"STIs are clever little buggers and they can be passed on in other ways," he said. Read more via ABC