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STIs are an increasing problem in the UK, despite awareness campaigns run by various health bodies and charities. The blame for these increasing figures is an argument in itself, and as such is not something I’ll be discussing here in any great detail. An important factor in the growing numbers of infected individuals, however, has to be the fact that many people just don’t know they’re infected, and so go on to infect other individuals.
One of the most common misconceptions about STIs is the fact that they cause obvious and characteristic symptoms. Many believe that if it “burns when you pee” then you have an STI. Similarly, if you itch “down there”, you’re probably infected. Of course, if it was that easy to tell whether an infection was present or not, the STI in question would get identified and treated almost instantly and there would be no way of the infection being passed on. Clearly, this is not the case.
In actual fact, the majority of STIs actually do not display any symptoms at all. It is entirely possible to be infected with any number of STIs and be completely unaware of it. Common STIs like chlamydia can remain undetected indefinitely, heightening the risk of serious complications arising, such as fertility. This is why experts in the field strongly advise that people who have had unprotected sex - inadvisable in itself - take an STI test to rule out possible infection. STI testing is a simple process, and can be done in a clinic or through an online home testing service. If you’re put yourself at risk of contracting an STI, you are only placing yourself at a greater risk - and future sexual partners - by not taking a test.
So do any STIs display visible symptoms? Yes, though only a small number. Viral STIs like genital herpes and genital warts cause highly characteristic visible symptoms in the form of sores and warts respectively in the genital area. The viruses that cause these infections are incurable but future outbreaks can be managed with treatment. Syphilis, though far less common, can also cause sores.
It is always better to prevent an STI than try and treat one after it has occurred, which is why you should always use a barrier method of contraception, such as a condom, especially during sex with a new partner, or if you frequently change your partner.