Sexually transmitted infections

Information on HIV, syphilis, gonorrhoea, chlamydia and hepatitis

HIV

HIV attacks a part of a person's immune system, and as this gets weaker a person is at an increasing risk of rare infections and cancers that would not usually affect people without HIV. However, being HIV positive does not increase the risk of everyday infections such as the common cold.

Causes

HIV is passed on through bodily fluids such as blood and semen where it is in very high concentration. Therefore most people are infected through having unprotected sex - sex without a condom. HIV is also present in pre-cum, menstrual blood, vaginal and rectal fluids so using a condom for the entire time while having sex is the best way to avoid infection. HIV is also present in saliva but in such very small quantities you cannot be infected through kissing, body contact or using utensils etc.

Symptoms

Often there are no immediate symptoms when you are infected with HIV. However, some people may experience flu-like symptoms, swollen glands, a rash or sore throat. This gets better over 2-4 weeks and often the HIV infection isn't diagnosed at this stage because the symptoms are very similar to other viral infections. People are very infectious in the first few weeks after catching HIV and at this stage it is very easy to pass the HIV on. Once infected, most people stay in good health for a number of years, and would not know that they had HIV unless they tested for it. However, over time as the immune system is weakened you may start to experience symptoms or develop other infections and diseases.

Treatment

There is no known cure for HIV. However, if you know your HIV status medicine is available to manage the virus's progression and keep people in good health for a very long time. Most people with HIV are now on one or two tablets a day, and the side-effects of these medications are pretty minor.

Syphilis

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted infection caused by a bacteria.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of syphilis may vary because there are four stages of the infection. The first stage typically shows with an ulcer (open sore) that is usually not painful and shows up on or around the anus, mouth, penis and/or vagina. The sore heals up over two weeks or so, even without any treatment. The second stage usually presents with a rash over the body which usually doesn't itch and might be seen over the palms of the hands or soles of the feet. When a person has a sore or the rash they are most infectious, and can easily pass syphilis on. The third stage is called 'latent' because there are no symptoms. The last stage is called tertiary and happens years later if a person has not been treated. This can cause damage to your brain, heart and nervous system.

Treatment

A blood test is the most common way to test if you have syphilis. It can be very effectively treated with antibiotics.

Gonorrheoa

Gonorrheoa is a common sexually transmitted infection that is caused by bacteria and can affect the urethra (the tube urine is passed from), the rectum (back-passage) the throat and in women the cervix and fallopian tubes. Gonorrhea may cause pelvic inflammatory disease in women (which can cause fertility problems) and infection of the prostate gland in men.

Causes

You can catch gonorrhoea from unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex with an infected partner.

Symptoms

Some people do not show symptoms for gonorrhoea. They may be completely unaware that they have caught the infection, and therefore do not get tested or treated. This increases the risk of complications and the chances of passing the infection on to another person.

Women

Women with gonorrhoea often have no symptoms. Otherwise, symptoms usually appear within a week or so after catching the infection, although it can sometimes take longer. Symptoms include feeling the need to pass urine more often than usual or discomfort when passing urine, a change in the vaginal discharge, discomfort during sex or lower abdominal pain.

Men

Symptoms may include pain, irritation or burning during peeing; yellow discharge from the penis, swollen or tender testicles; and more rarely pain between the scrotum and the anus from an inflamed prostate gland. Pain or discharge in the anus can be a sign of infection.

Infection in the throat in both men and women tends to not cause any symptoms.

Treatment

Gonorrhoea is tested for by taking a urine sample, or a swab from the throat, back passage, cervix or vagina, and is easily treated with antibiotics.

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is a bacterial sexually transmitted infection and is very common. if untreated, chlamydia may cause infertility in both men and women. A woman could also have an ectopic pregnancy. An ectopic pregnancy happens when fertilised egg implants outside of the uterus and can be dangerous.

Causes

You can get chlamydia if you have unprotected oral sex, vaginal sex or anal sex with a person who already has the infection. A pregnant woman can also pass it on to her baby while she is giving birth.

Symptoms

Many people who have chlamydia do not have any signs that tell them they have a sexually transmitted infection. You can pass on chlamydia without even knowing that you have it.

Women

You might notice strange discharge from your vagina, a little bit of bleeding even when it is not time for your period, bleeding during or after you have vaginal sex, pain in your lower abdomen and/or pain when you wee.

Men

You might notice needing to wee a lot, a feeling of burning when you wee, watery discharge coming out of your penis, burning or itching around the hole of your penis and/or pain in your testicles.

Treatment

Chlamydia is treated with antibiotics and treatment for people without any symptoms is available at our clinics.

Hepatitis A

Hepatitis means 'inflammation of the liver'. Hepatitis A is usually the least serious of the three main hepatitis viruses but it can still make you very ill.

Causes

Hepatitis A is caused by a virus found in faeces. You can get it from sexual contact with someone who has the virus and by ingestion of contaminated food or water. In developing countries, and in regions with poor hygiene standards, Hepatitis A is common because of the lack of clean water however not especially common in UK. To be passed on the virus needs to get into your mouth to infect you.

Symptoms

Many people may show mild symptoms, recover and not even realize they had hepatitis. Up to 6 weeks after being infected you may feel mild flu-like symptoms. You may notice fever or diarrhea, feeling sick or very tired, abdominal pain or weight loss, feeling sick when you are around tobacco smoke, fatty food and alcohol and/or have itchy skin. You may get jaundice which means your skin and the whites of your eyes turn yellow, your poo goes a pale colour and/or your urine is darker in colour.

Treatment

The treatment for hepatitis A is lots of rest. Your doctor will tell you how long to avoid drinking alcohol while your liver recovers. A blood test can show when you've fully recovered.

Vaccine

There is a vaccine for Hepatitis A which can protect you from getting it. It is two small injections 6 to 12 months apart and protects you for at least 10 years. There is also a combined vaccine for both Hepatitis A and B that you can ask your doctor about.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is a virus and it can cause a serious infection of the liver.

Causes

You can get hepatitis B from an infected person through their blood, semen, vaginal fluid and saliva. The virus can be passed on through unprotected vaginal sex, oral sex, or anal sex with a person who has the infection. Sharing personal items, like toothbrushes and razors, or by sharing needles or tattoo equipment, can also pass on Hepatitis B. A pregnant woman can pass Hepatitis B to her baby before it is born.

Symptoms

Many people who have the virus don't know they have it and can still pass on the virus without knowing it. If you have hepatitis B, you might notice feeling tired, pain in your abdomen, your wee or poo is a strange colour, you skin is yellow, you are not very hungry and/or you feel like throwing up.

Treatment

You can get a blood test to test for hepatitis B. Most people who catch the infection will clear it without help but about 1 in ten will not be able to do this - they are called hepatitis B carriers and may be at risk of liver problems over the years, and also might pass the infection on.

Luckily, there are treatments available from liver experts to help these people clear the infection.

Vaccine

You can protect yourself against Hepatitis B with a vaccine. This is very safe and takes three small injections that can be given over three weeks, three months or six months.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C is a virus that can cause infection of the liver. It is different from hepatitis A and B.

Causes

The most common way a person can be infected by hepatitis C is by sharing needles. It is also possible to spread hepatitis C through unprotected sexual contact, but it does not happen as easily as by sharing needles.

Symptoms

Only a small percentage of people who are infected by hepatitis C develop symptoms like fever, loss of appetite and jaundice (yellowing of the skin). Therefore many people do not know that they have been infected with the virus. Unfortunately more than 80% of people who have hepatitis C get an on-going infection of the liver and some of them develop liver problems and liver cancer many years later.

Treatment

There is a blood test that detects whether you have the antibody against hepatitis C. The presence of the antibody suggests that you have been infected with hepatitis C, but the test cannot tell you when this might have happened. There are treatments available from liver specialists to help people who have caught the infection.

Vaccine

There is no vaccine available for hepatitis C at the moment. Vaccination against hepatitis A and B will not protect you against hepatitis C.

Useful websites

Greenwich Sexual Health

Sexual and reproductive health information and services for people living in the Royal Borough of Greenwich. You can also call the Greenwich Sexual health Office on 020 8305 5005.

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Bexley Sexual Health

Sexual and reproductive health information and services for people living in Bexley. You can also call the Bexley Sexual health Office on 020 8305 5002.

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Pitstop PLUS

Sexual health information and services specifically for men who have sex with men.

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Get it

Condoms for young people living in Kent and Medway.

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