By Dr Tan Hiok Hee
“Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are among most common infectious diseases in the world. They are spread by sexual activities, including vaginal intercourse, oral sex or anal sex.
There are more than a dozen STIs caused by viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Parasitic infestations can also be passed from one person to another through sexual relations.”
Viruses multiply when they invade the cells of their host. HIV, which causes AIDS, is the most deadly known viral STI. Other viral STIs are hepatitis, herpes, and genital warts. Most STIs that are caused by a virus cannot be totally cured however, treatment may help put the disease into remission.
On the other hand, gonorrhoea, syphilis, Chlamydia, and chancroid are examples of STIs caused by bacteria. Antibiotics can cure bacterial STIs.
Fungi, a group of organisms that usually feed or dead or decaying matter, cause infections such as candidiasis. When uncomplicated, they are treated with oral and/or topical medicines.
Examples of parasitic infestations are those caused by mites (scabies) and pubic lice.
Symptoms to look out for
Many people assume they need to seek medical help only when they develop a symptom such as an itch, a foul-smelling discharge, or a rash. It’s important to go for regular screenings because many STIs do not display symptoms, particularly among women.
However, when symptoms do appear, they may manifest as:
- Burning sensation or itching in the genital area
- Discharge from the urethra or vagina
- Sores in the genital, anal or oral areas
- Growths or lumps in the genital or anal areas
- Painful urination
Having these symptoms do not necessarily mean you have STI. However, seek medical opinion to be sure and avoid any form of sexual activity until the cause(s) have been determined.
You are at risk if …
- You have multiple sex partners or practise promiscuous sex
- You share needles as in drug abuse
- You consume an excessive amount of alcohol, which impairs your judgment
- You or your partner do not use condoms regularly and correctly
What happens at an STI check-up?
You will be asked to provide a detailed sexual history. This assists in determining your risk factors and the type of investigation needed.
A physical examination will be conducted and may involve examining the mouth, rectum, and genitalia. Women typically undergo a pelvic examination.
Swabs from sores or discharges may be taken and tested for various microorganisms. These may be sent for smear tests (looking under the microscope for certain bacteria, fungi or parasites) or cultures (attempting to grow the microorganism in the laboratory for identification and treatment). For women, swabs may be taken from inside the vagina and the cervix (opening of the womb). A pap smear may also be done, which is a screening test for cervical cancer.
Urine and blood tests may also be taken to check for diseases such as chlamydia, syphilis and HIV.
What if I have been diagnosed with an STI?
Ask questions and make sure you understand the treatment you will be receiving– whether it is in the form of oral medications, creams, or treatments at the clinic, e.g., removal of warts by cryosurgery. You may be advised to return for tests in future to ensure that the infection is under control.
Do I tell my partner?
You need to let your partner know, even though it can be very difficult. Informing your partner gives him or her the opportunity to get tested and treated as well. They may develop complications if they are untreated, and you may risk getting infected again. If you have been cured of STI, learn from the experience and move on with your life. Take positive steps to reduce the risks and have a healthy sex life.
Dr Tan Hiok Hee is the head of the Department of STI Control (DSC) Clinic in Singapore. He is also a consultant at the National Skin Centre, Singapore. The DSC Clinic provides counseling and medical treatment for sexually-transmitted infections. You may reach them at:
31 Kelantan Lane, # 01-16 Singapore 200031Telephone No.: 6293-9648