Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) – sometimes know as STDs – refer to a range of infections that can be passed on through close sexual contact.
STDs are extremely common to the point that every week around 30,000 people in the UK attend NHS sexual health clinics. According to a recent study, demand for these health services still far outstrips supply.
Some STIs show symptoms all the time, some show symptoms none of the time and some only show symptoms in a handful of people. Whatever the case, the more we all know about them the better we’ll be able to manage the ones we have and avoid the ones we don’t.
By understanding and talking about specific infections it should also make it easier to discuss these issues with our partners. It also enables us to make informed decisions about the risks we’re prepared to take and the risk we’re prepared to expose our partners to.
In the UK and Ireland, the changing ways in which we live our lives is contributing towards an increase in STDs. People are settling down later, but those who are single tend to have more partners than they did in the past – a sample of patients attending a Terrence Higgins Trust testing centre found that 6.1% and 7.1% of heterosexual men and women respectively had had a new partner in the previous seven days.
At the other end of the age spectrum an increase in the number of divorces – 155,000 in 2005 in the UK – means that many middle-aged people are finding themselves exposed to STIs for the first time in twenty years.
The media frequently reports that there’s a continued explosion in STIs, but the reality this reporting depends on the STI in question. The most common infection, genital chlamydia, has seen a steady rise and has a nasty habit of not showing any symptoms, thereby lurking silently.
On the other hand, cases of gonorrhea rose steadily from 1999 to 2002, but today the number of new cases is declining. However, the AIDS charity Avert reports that there is now concern that there is an increasing number of new cases of gonorrhea found in the UK that are resistant to certain drugs used to treat it.
Then there is the the issue of STIs and relationships. A new diagnosis can undermine trust between two people and also trigger unjustified accusations of infidelity. Someone with, for instance, an incurable but currently not-visible viral STI might be too nervous to tell a new partner. Counselling is an important consideration in this kind of situation.
If there are specific issues you would like us to discuss around STDs, send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will get our Ask the Doctor writer, Dr Laurence Gerlis, to respond.