Sexual Health

STIs: treatments

Sexually transmitted infections can be broken down into three main types: bacterial, parasitic and viral. All three types of infections occur in heterosexual (opposite gender) or homosexual (same gender) sexual relationships. It is important to remember that condoms protect against most sexually transmitted infection.

Bacterial and parasitic infections can be cured. STIs that are caused by bacteria include chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Trichomonas vaginalis is a form of parasitic infection.

Viral infections can only be treated but not completely cured. Viral sexually transmitted infections include herpes, hepatitis B, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and human papillomaviruses (HPVs). HPV is a very common virus with over 100 different strains.

There are two types of HPV vaccine both of which provide protection against two high risk types of HPV (types 16 and 18) that cause 70% of all cervical cancers. Women need to be vaccinated before they come into contact with the virus. The virus is transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, usually by sexual activity.

"Studies have already shown that the vaccine protects against HPV infection for around 10 years, although experts expect protection to be for much longer" - NHS Choices September 2014.

In September 2012 the NHS switched to Gardasil vaccine which also protects against the types of HPV that cause 90% of genital warts.

Find out more about young women's experiences of the HPV vaccine.

Below is an account of the STIs infections and treatment experiences of the young people we talked to.

Chlamydia is a bacterial infection passed on through unprotected sex, and most common among women in their teens and men in their twenties. It is often symptomless, and therefore often not possible to know who infected whom.

For example a woman could have had chlamydia without knowing it for a long time and only realise that she is infected after her present boyfriend develops symptoms, goes for treatment and names her as a contact. One woman was diagnosed when she went to the GUM to be treated for genital warts.

The common treatment for chlamydia is a course of antibiotics. The two most commonly prescribed treatments are: Azithromycin (single dose) and Doxycycline (longer course). Besides treatment, health professionals will also explain not to have any sex (oral, vaginal, anal or use sex toys) until seven days after completing treatment. If left untreated it could develop into pelvic inflammatory disease.

Genital warts are a particular type of HPV infection that can affect men and women, gay and straight. The types of HPV that can cause genital warts (virus types 6 and 11) are not the same as the types that can cause cancers. The virus lives in the skin and is usually passed on by skin contact. The virus can also be passed on when no warts are on the skin. Weeks or months after infection small growths appear on their own or in groups. Treatment is usually with a cream applied twice a day. It can take a long time to make them go away. If the cream is not effective they can be removed by freezing or scraping. One woman said that she had several treatments, but the warts kept reappearing. She was initially treated in a rural hospital in another country before attending a GUM clinic in the UK.

Genital herpes is one of the most common STIs with more than 20,000 cases diagnosed in the UK every year. Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Type 2 or HSV-2 causes genital herpes. The infectious stage of the illness is when painful sores or blisters appear in the genital areas or in the buttocks, and the blisters burst, releasing fluids. At this stage, genital herpes is easily transmitted to another person during sexual intercourse. During this active infection phase, the person usually feels feverish, unwell and exhausted. Treatment consists of antiviral drugs, taken as tablets that will reduce the severity of an attack. There is not yet a cure. After the initial attack has passed people may go months before a further outbreak. Some people who suffer from frequent attacks take low dose antiviral medication to prevent them. One young woman who contracted genital herpes at the age of sixteen describes her treatment. The same woman explains that she now takes vitamin supplements which she believes help to prevent outbreaks.

Last reviewed January 2016.

Last updated January 2016.

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