Women's Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI)
No one really talks about it, but sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are really very common, especially among young people; or rather anyone who is sexually active! Put simply, it means any infection that is passed from one person to another by having sex (including oral and anal sex) and sometimes through direct contact with genitals. In women, most STIs goes undetected as women usually do not experience any symptoms. If left untreated, they can cause serious problems including infertility.
Vaginal discharge is the most commonly reported symptom associated with STIs. However, not all STIs present with vaginal discharge, and not all vaginal discharges are STIs. A very important and common STI in women is the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which has significant evidence to be strongly associated with Cervical Cancer.
Common STI symptoms
While most STI in women do not show any symptoms, women may or may not present with the following:
Women may experience pain or a burning sensation while passing urine. They may also complain of increased frequency of urination, just like a bladder or urinary tract infection. Sometimes, the pain that is experienced may be caused by a Herpetic ulcer on the labia.
This is easily the most common STI symptom women may experience. Any changes from normal vaginal discharge in terms of colour, amount, or being foul smelling should raise curiosity to what might be happening.
Pain during sex. During sexual intercourse, the penis usually gently hits the cervix. This should not be painful. However, if the Cervix is inflamed, usually due to an STI, this can be rather painful. In fact, if the Cervix is very sensitive and tender, this could mean that the infection has worsened and the woman may have Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). This is very dangerous.
Bleeding during or after sex. It is very common for the vagina to suffer mild abrasions or tears during intercourse which can cause some bleeding. However, in the presence of an infection, the vaginal lining can be fragile and breaks easily, leading to more severe bleeding.
Ulcers. These are breaks or craters on the skin.
- Herpetic ulcers are small, multiple and painful.
- Syphillis ulcers are solitary and painless.
- Chancroids are solitary, large, and painful ulcers. It also presents with swollen lymph nodes in the groin crease that are also enlarged and painful.
Sometimes, these ulcers can appear inside the vagina which makes it impossible for you to see. Only your doctor will be able to see it with an internal examination.
Blisters. These are little fluid-filled bubbles on the skin. Herpetic infections present early with multiple and painful blisters which burst to form ulcers.
Growths. Any growth on the groin region may indicate an STI. Sometimes they can be difficult to see. If the growths are skin coloured and have an uneven surface (like a cauliflower), it may be a wart caused by the HPV virus. If the growths look like little pearls stuck onto the skin, it may be caused by the Molluscum Contagiosum Virus.
Itch. Itching can be on the skin or inside the vagina. Itching on the skin can be caused by lice or scabies. Itching in the vagina can be extremely uncomfortable and can be caused by the Trichomonas infection. However, the most common cause of vaginal itching is caused by yeast infection, Candida albicans, or vulvovaginal thrush (not an STI).
Swollen Lymph Nodes.
During an infection, the regional lymph nodes may swell as part of the body's reaction to help fight the infection. Hence, in the event of an infection in the vagina or pelvic region, the lymph nodes along the groin crease may swell and possibly be a little tender.
Lower abdominal pain. As most STIs in women are asymptomatic, undetected and untreated infections may worsen and affect the uterus (womb) and the Fallopian tubes. Once passed the Fallopian tubes, the infection can lead to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. Any of these conditions can cause pain in the lower abdomen.
What are the common STIs?
- HPV and genital warts
How to protect yourself from STIs?
It is pretty common for someone to have a STI and not know about it. Some may even know about it, but refuse treatment, because of the stigma that has been associated with having a STI. That is why it is so important to protect yourself by using a condom, every time you have sex. Don’t be afraid to talk to your partner about using protection. A great way to look after yourself is to pay a visit to our doctors who are well trained and get tested. That way, you will know if you have a STI and can get treated early.
So what to do now?
If you have any of the above symptoms, get tested asap. Even if you do not have any symptoms, get tested.
Many STDs do not show any symptoms and can damage your body permanently. Do not wait until it is too late.
Syphillis is a STI that can cause serious health problems if left untreated. It can be divided into stages –primary, secondary, latent and tertiary. Syphillis is spread via direct contact with a Syphillis sore which can be found any part of the body, be it around the penis,vagina, anus, or in the rectum, mouth, or even on the lips.
In primary Syphillis, the sore usually occurs at the site of infection, which is usually on or around the genitals, anus, in the rectum, or around or in the mouth. These sores of the firm, round and painless.
In secondary Syphillis, skin rash, swollen lymph nodes and fever may occur.
During the latent stage, an infected person will not experience any symptoms.
Tertiary Syphillis is associated with severe medical problems which can affect the heart, brain and other organs of the body. A doctor can usually diagnose this stage of syphilis with the help of multiple tests.
Syphilis and pregnancy
Syphilis can be passed down from mother to infant during childbirth. It can lead to low birth weight in babies, babies that are delivered too early, or even stillbirths. An infected baby may not show any signs or symptoms. Hence, it is pertinent to get screened and treated for Syphilis in all pregnant mothers.
Treatment for Syphilis is fairly straightforward and highly effective with the right antibiotics. However, treatment will not undo any damage that has already been done by the infection. Follow-up testing is recommended to make sure that treatment was successful.
If you are unsure, or have had a recent new sexual partner, visit your doctor and get tested today.
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that affects the body and weakens the body’s natural way to fight infections. It can be transmitted through unprotected vaginal or anal sex with an infected person. Blood products, sharing of needles, syringes or other injectable equipment may also put you at risk of contracting HIV.
People with HIV may not have any signs or symptoms and may look and appear very healthy. Soon after contracting the virus, they will experience flu-like symptoms. They may experience a fever, headache, tiredness and even a rash. These symptoms may even appear years after contracting the virus.
If left untreated, HIV can lead to AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome). When this occurs, the body’s immune system is damaged and cannot fight infections and cancer.
There are currently no vaccines or cure available for HIV. However, people living with HIV may be on medications which keep their HIV under control.
Like any other STI, the only way to prevent HIV from transmitting via sexual contact is the use of condoms. Do not share injecting equipment. Make sure tattoo and body piercing parlours practice good sterilization and hygiene practices. If you are unsure or have had a new sexual partner, visit your doctor to get tested today. But remember, prevention is always better than cure.