Sexually transmitted infections
Also known as: Sexually transmitted diseases; STIs; STDs
Last Review Date: November 3, 2017
There are more than 20 known sexually transmitted infections/diseases (STIs/STDs). Sometimes these cause , often in or around the genitals, and this should prompt a visit to the doctor immediately. However, some of these STIs can be ‘silent’ — a person could have the disease but might not notice any symptoms of the infection. Despite this, STIs can be passed to sexual partners even without symptoms, and some can be passed from pregnant women to the developing foetus or newborn infant, causing serious illness.
Therefore, it is important to be tested for STIs regularly if you are sexually active, even if you have no symptoms.
Some common STIs are listed below:
- Gonorrhoea. This infection, also known as "the clap" is caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae. It is often asymtomatic, but may cause a discharge from the vagina, penis or anus. If the infection is not treated, however, it can lead to sterility and other complications. Gonorrhoea can be treated with antibiotics.
- Chlamydia. Chlamydia trachomatis is the commonest STI in Australia. It is sometimes called the 'silent epidemic’ because infections are common yet many people do not realise that they are infected. Only one in four of infected people have symptoms of a slight discharge and stinging on passing urine. If left untreated, it can have serious health consequences, including pelvic inflammatory disease and sterility, but can be easily cured with antibiotics.
- Syphilis. Syphilis is a bacterial infection, caused by Treponema pallidum. The first symptom is a painless sore, usually on the genitals, in or around the anus or rectum, or in the mouth, that disappears on its own. This sore, may go un-noticed by the person affected. Later symptoms can include a rash all over the body, often including the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. The infection can be passed on to others, especially for the first eighteen months after infection. Syphilis can be easily treated with antibiotics. However, if left untreated, the disease can spread throughout the body over the course of many years and cause considerable organ damage, including to the brain and nervous system.
- Trichomonas. Trichomonas vaginalis is a microscopic parasite that may or may not cause symptoms of watery discharge and stinging on passing urine. Treatment is available.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV). This can infect the genital area, causing genital warts (condylomata). Some types of the virus have been associated with cervical cancer, as well as some other cancer types. Early detection with cervical screening tests can limit the risk of cervical cancer. In Australia, a vaccine to prevent HPV infection and cervical cancer is provided free in schools to all males and females aged 12-13 years under the National HPV Vaccination Program. See the short video below for more on HPV testing and how it can help you avoid cervical cancer.
- Genital herpes. This is caused by Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) types 1 and 2. Symptoms include periodic outbreaks of sores in the genital region, though some people do not have symptoms. Anti-viral medication is available and can shorten the duration of symptoms.
- Hepatitis B and hepatitis C. These are viral infections that can be transmitted through sexual contact. Hepatitis B and C affect the liver and can severely damage it. Treatment with antiviral drugs is available.
- Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). This virus attacks and destroys certain white blood cells (T-helper lymphocytes) that are important components of the immune system. As the number of these cells is reduced, the ability to fight off infections also decreases. This eventually results in acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and death. There is no cure for HIV, but antiviral medications are readily available and are essential tools in treatment of HIV infection and prevention of transmission. Early detection and treatment of HIV is important to preserve good immune function and allow people with HIV to lead longer and healthier lives.
You can refer yourself to any Sexual Health Clinic in Australia to receive free, confidential testing and treatment. For any sexually transmitted disease, recent sexual partner(s) should be informed, so that they may be tested and treated as well. Clinic staff will advise you how best to do this, but it is generally not compulsory.
On this site
Tests: Gonorrhoea, chlamydia, syphilis, trichomonas, HPV, genital herpes, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, HIV antibody test
Elsewhere on the web
Register of Public Sexual Health Clinics in Australia and New Zealand (2016)
Better Health Channel: Sexually transmissible infections overview
Healthdirect Australia: Sexually transmitted infections
Melbourne Sexual Health Centre: Fact Sheets
Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination Australia