Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

The rate of STIs among sexually active teens is very high and very worrying. For example, lots of sexually active young people are infected with chlamydia, both males and females. Chlamydia causes chronic pain and infertility in women (inability to have a child). Unfortunately there are rarely any symptoms, so the damage is done before they know they have it and it keeps getting passed on from one sexual partner to another.

Think about it this way.
If someone offered you a water bottle and told you 10 people had backwashed into it before you, would you have a drink? That’s a bit like sexual contact with more than one person. You’re leaving yourself open to every person they’ve been with and so on, right down the line. That’s how STIs spread.

Decisions about sex
Whether or not to get into sex is something to really think about – not just because of the risk of STIs, but because of pregnancy, abortion and emotional hurts. There’s no such thing as casual sex. People’s emotions and physical well being are always on the line.

Most of what we see in the media give the impression that pretty much all teens are having sex. Not true! By age 19 only half the teen population has had sexual intercourse. If you are a virgin you are not alone – and you’re keeping safe. Saying No to sex as a teenager is a smart move. It gives you the freedom to think about your goals and decide what you actually want from a relationship.

Read on to find out more about STIs

STI stands for Sexually Transmitted Infection. These are infections that are passed on through sexual contact.

They can range from minor irritations –

  • Pubic lice
  • Thrush (can also occur without sexual contact)

to the more serious ones –

  • Genital wart virus
  • Chlamydia (the leading cause of infertility in women)
  • Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)
  • Hepatitis B

In Australia the most common STIs are –

  • Chlamydia  (the number of reported cases has risen alarmingly over recent years)
  • HPV or Genital wart virus (associated with cervical cancer)
  • Herpes (symptoms treatable but no cure)
  • Pubic Lice

Less common diseases are –

  • Gonorrhoea (reported cases on the rise and causing concern to health experts)
  • Syphilis (reported cases on the rise and causing concern to health experts)

Being infectious
Due to lack of symptoms males and females may unknowingly carry and transmit some STIs over many years. Some infections are passed from pregnant mother to baby, eg: HIV, hepatitis B, herpes.

Chlamydia and gonorrhoea can lead to infection and scarring of the female reproductive system which can lead to ectopic pregnancy or prevent the woman from being able to have a baby.

Cervical Cancer
The genital wart virus (Human Papilloma Virus) is linked to the development of cancer of the cervix in women, especially when contracted at a young age.

A vaccine is now available which protects sexually active women against certain strains of HPV which are known to cause 7 out of 10 cases of cervical cancer and 9 out of 10 cases of genital warts.

Loss of life

  • cervical cancer that is not diagnosed and treated early can lead to death.
  • HIV/AIDS symptoms can be treated and the course of the disease slowed down but there is currently no cure.  The sufferer will eventually die from acquired infections that a healthy person’s body is able to fight off.
  • a small proportion of  people with Hepatitis B  develop a severe illness that can occasionally lead to death.

You can catch an STI if you or your partner has had sex with someone who is infected.

NOTE that condom use does not protect from all STIs.

Many STIs have no symptoms, giving a false sense of security. Symptoms that may indicate the presence of an STI are –

  • pain when passing urine
  • pain/redness/sores/itching in the genital area
  • any unaccounted for pain or tenderness in the abdominal area
  • ulcers, blisters, rashes or abnormal odours
  • discharge – males: any discharge from the penis other than semen or urine
  • discharge – females: any discharge from the vagina that is different to normal; the appearance of blood that is not related to a period

NOTE – it’s normal for women/girls to have some discharge (vaginal mucous), varying through the menstrual cycle from white and sticky to clear and moist.
Thrush is a common infection causing a sticky discharge and itchiness. It can be sexually transmitted, however, thrush can be contracted in other ways and is easily treated.

Decisions about sex are important and can be for life.

  • If you have never been sexually active you are not at risk.
  • If you are in a mutually faithful lifetime relationship you are not at risk.  
  • If you have had more than one sexual partner, or any of those partners have, you are at risk.  The more sexual partners, the greater risk of catching STIs.

But what about condoms? Do condoms provide safe sex?

Condoms provide some protection against some STIs because they are designed to prevent the mixing of bodily fluids (semen, blood, vaginal mucous). For STIs that are passed on through skin contact eg: genital wart virus, herpes, syphilis and lice, condoms offer limited protection because skin surrounding the genital area can also be infected.

The ‘safe sex’ message promotes the use of condoms however condom failure rates in practice are high. Condoms can break or come off allowing for pregnancy and passing on of disease.

Condom failure rates are measured in terms of the number of pregnancies that occurred over a 12 month period despite using the method. Pregnancy can occur on only a few days of a woman’s cycle but STIs can be passed on every day, so actual condom failure rates are therefore much higher than the official rate given.

Sex with condoms always involves risk.

Explanation of Terms

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
Serious bacterial infection of reproductive system. Often has no symptoms. Leading cause of infertility.
Genital wart virus (HPV)
Virus that can cause warts in the genital area. Different to the warts you can get on your hands. No cure. Vaccine against some strains of HPV available. Condoms do not protect against transmission as entire skin area around genitals can be infected.
Bacterial infection causing pain and a pus-like discharge. Can cause premature labour and stillbirth in pregnant women. Condoms do not protect against transmission.
Hepatitis B
highly infectious virus, affects liver. Virus remains in body for life. Can affect babies of pregnant women.
Recurring viral infection that can cause painful blisters in genital area. Symptoms can be treated but the disease cannot be cured. Condoms do not protect against transmission.
Can affect babies of pregnant women.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This virus attacks the body cells and prevents them fighting infection and can lead to AIDS. No cure.
Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. A progressive infection that harms woman’s reproductive system leading to ectopic pregnancy, infertility and chronic pain. Often caused by chlamydia and gonorrhoea.
Pubic lice(crabs)
similar to head lice but usually only found in pubic area. Condoms do not protect against transmission.
Bacterial infection with progressive symptoms. First noticeable sign may be painless sore. Untreated, can cause serious illness many years later. Can affect babies of pregnant women.
Connects the vagina and uterus (womb). Vulnerable to infection and cancer.
Ectopic pregnancy
Embryo which implants in the Fallopian tube rather than uterus. With no room for the pregnancy to continue to develop there is great danger to mother, and the embryo cannot survive.
Inability to have a child. There are many reasons for infertility – STIs is only one.
Fluid that carries sperm in males.

Most teenagers are not sexually active. There are good reasons for this choice.
Having sex can complicate single relationships. You are free to choose to have more control of your sexual and emotional health.

  • It’s OK to delay sexual activity. You don’t have to justify yourself.  Not everyone is ‘doing it’
  • Sex is worth waiting for, and so are you
  • Enjoy many friendships
  • You can have affectionate and fun times without having sex
  • Support each other and your friends in the decisions you have made
  • If someone puts the pressure on you they don’t care about you
  • Alcohol, drugs, and even your emotional state can affect your decision making
  • Have a support network of trusted adults you can talk to.

Sometimes we make mistakes about sex, especially if we are feeling down about something, or lonely and sad. Sex can seem like a promise of love and affection but afterwards we can feel really let down and used and somehow lonelier than ever. This emotional state can get in the way of making clear decisions and leave us open to risk.

Talk about it – if you are worried about pregnancy, or your relationships or decisions, reach out for confidential help from an Open Doors counsellor using the Contact Us form.