When it comes to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) sometimes it’s harder for youth to access safer sex supplies (condoms, for example), or to know where to get accurate info. This helps to explain why 15-24 year olds have high rates of STIs. There’s also a lot of misinformation about STIs and stereotypes about who can get one. Myths (like only “those” people get STIs) and wrong information put us at risk. If we don’t have accurate info we might not use barriers (like condoms) or get tested if we are deciding to have sex.
The good news is, there are lot’s of things we can do to help keep ourselves and our partner(s) to be safer. Choosing not to have sex (abstinence), doing lower risk activities, using barriers like condoms and sex dams each and every time and getting tested regularly can all help to prevent the spread of STIs. You don’t have to be having sex to get accurate info. Ideally, people get safer sex information before they decide to have sex. Read on to find out more!
- Types of STIs
- STIs are common in Manitoba so it can be helpful to know a bit about them. What’s listed below is basic information for both curable and treatable STIs. “Curable” means that the STI can be cured with medication or treatment and the person does not have an STI anymore but could get it again. “Treatable” means that the STI cannot be cured, but the symptoms can be treated. There are three types of STI: bacteria like gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis; parasites like trichomoniasis and pubic lice; and viruses like HIV and Hep B/C.
Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that is curable with antibiotics and there are rarely any signs or symptoms, which is why it is important to get tested!
Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection that is curable with antibiotics. Some of the more common signs and symptoms include irritation when peeing and sex organ discharge, but some people will not have any signs.
Trichomoniasis, “trich” for short, is a parasite that can be spread during sex. It can cause vaginitis in women – an inflamed, sore and itchy vagina, sometimes with an unusual discharge. Trich is curable with antibiotics.
Hepatitis C, Hep C or HCV for short, is a virus that can damage the liver, which filters our blood. It is spread through blood so any behaviour involving blood is high risk for transmission. Hep C can live outside of the body for up to four days. This makes sharing things like toothbrushes, razors, glass or metal pipes, drug works, nail clippers, tweezers and earrings (if piercing is not healed) a risk. There is treatment for Hep C that can cure it most of the time. Click here to find out more about Hepatitis C.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection passed on by contact with an open sore. Sometimes the sores go unnoticed as there is no pain but like most other STIs, it can cause complications if left untreated. Syphilis is curable through a series of injections, given at a clinic.
Pubic Lice are parasites that are very itchy and live in your pubic hair. They are cured with a shampoo that anyone can get at a pharmacy or teen clinic. Shaving pubic hair to get rid of lice doesn’t work and can cause a rash making it worse! It’s important to wash all the clothing, towels and sheets that have been used since lice can live away from the body for 1-2 days and can be passed on.
Genital Herpes are painful sores that only have treatments such as creams and pills. A person can try to reduce herpes outbreaks by taking extra good care of themselves, lowering stress and wearing loose clothing. If someone put their mouth on someone’s genitals and that person has genital herpes, the virus can be passed on and they could get cold sores, and vice versa. However, that doesn’t mean if someone has a cold sore, they got it from sexual activity. Cold sores are common.
Genital Warts, also Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), have over 100 types, and about 40 of them can cause genital warts. Certain types of HPV can cause cervical cancer in women, which is why it’s important for women who have ever been sexually active to get a Pap Test every 3 years starting at age 21. Like other warts, genital warts are often treated by freezing or lasering and some people can clear HPV from their body. A wart on a hand can’t give that person genital warts because it’s a different kind of HPV.
Hepatitis A and B are viruses that can damage the liver, which filters our blood. Many people can clear Hep A and B on their own. There are vaccines for Hep A and B which can prevent people from getting them. People have said Hepatitis feels like the flu. Hep A can be passed by bacteria and unsanitary conditions, Hep B is mainly passed through sex fluids.
HIV is another virus that can be passed through unprotected sex and blood. Click here to find out more.
If you want to know more about how STIs can spread, check out ‘STI Transmission’ section below. The earlier STIs are recognized, the more easily they are cured or treated and don’t lead to long term complications. Often there are no signs or symptoms, which is why STI testing and finding ways to stay safer is so important.
- Signs of STIs
- You can’t tell by looking at someone if they have a sexually transmitted infection and often STIs don’t show many signs. If someone does have signs, they might notice…
- Sex organ discharge: Fluids like semen (cum or ejaculate), pre-ejaculate (pre-cum), vaginal fluid and discharge, menstrual blood and rectal (anal) fluid are common and healthy. However, if anything changes, looks different, is a different consistency, or smells different it could be a sign of a STI.
- Irritation when peeing: pain when you pee, feeling like you have to pee all the time, or trouble peeing.
- Genital itching: lots of itching in the genital area.
- Noticeable pelvic pain: dull aching in the pelvic or abdominal (stomach) area.
- Skin changes: rashes, lumps, bumps, or sores on your anus, penis, testicles, vulva, or vaginal area.
Checking out all your body parts is a great way to find out what you normally look like, but it isn’t a reliable way to tell whether or not you have a STI. The way to find out for sure is to get tested at a teen clinic or health centre. Testing for STIs can be quick, easy, and confidential, scroll down to find out more.
HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system, which then weakens the body’s ability to fight disease and infection. It can be passed through unprotected sex and blood. A common infection like the flu or a cold can be very difficult for the body to fight off after the immune system has been weakened by HIV. There is no cure for HIV but there are treatments.
- STI Transmission
Anyone who is sexually active can get an STI.
Most STIs are spread through sex fluids or unprotected sexual contact like…
- Oral sex (mouth on vulva, vagina, penis, testicles or anus)
- Anal sex (penis in anus)
- Vaginal sex (penis or sex toy in vagina)
- Skin-to-skin contact (like when partners rub their genitals together)
- Sharing sex toys
- STI Testing
- At most of the teen clinics in Manitoba they usually do either a urine or blood test to check for STIs, HIV, or Hepatitis C. The health care provider may also do a visual exam and might take a swab if necessary. You can ask for an STI or HIV test at a teen clinic or other health care centres or nursing stations. If you’d like to be tested for everything, let whoever is doing the test know.
Teen clinics can be especially great places for younger people to get confidential, free, friendly and non-judgemental STI testing without permission from a parent/guardian. To find out where the closest teen clinic is to you (Winnipeg and all of Manitoba), check out our interactive maps here!
Getting tested gives you the chance to get the cure or treatment as soon as possible. If you get tested with your partner even better! You’re partner will be able to show you the same respect you are showing them.
All you have to do for a urine test is pee in a cup. They can test for chlamydia and gonorrhea by testing the urine. Try not to pee for an hour or two before a test, it’s best to give them a strong sample!
If any noticeable signs were present on someone’s skin (like a sore or rash), a healthcare provider might want to do a visual exam to see it. A sample of cells can also be taken by a soft Q-tip like swab. If you’re uncomfortable at any point you can always arrange to come back another time when you feel more ready.
A blood test is when they take a small sample of blood. It’s how they test for STIs like HIV, Hepatitis C and Syphilis. If you have gotten a blood test for other things like checking your iron, it will not automatically test for HIV.
STI test results generally take two weeks. If you do not return in person for your results, and your test results are positive (you have an STI), you will receive a phone call asking you to return to the clinic for treatment. You can give the clinic the best way to contact you, and most clinics will try to be as professional and confidential as possible.
For blood tests, it can take 1-3 months for HIV and Hepatitis C to show up on a test since it takes time for antibodies to show up in someone’s blood. This period of time is called the ‘window period’. It’s important to remember that a person can spread HIV and Hep C during the window period. In other words, as soon as they are infected with the virus, they can be spreading the virus. A second blood test is recommended after the window period for blood tests to get an accurate result. Typically, blood test results aren’t given over the phone. In order to get HIV/Hep C test results (negative or positive) you usually go back to the clinic.
Teen clinics are great places for young people to get free, friendly and non-judgemental STI testing by a healthcare provider without permission from a parent/guardian. To find out where the closest Winnipeg teen clinic is to you or where to get tested outside of Winnipeg in Manitoba check out our interactive maps here!
Manitoba Public Health requires all past and current sexual partners to be informed if someone they had sexual contact with has Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, Syphilis, Hepatitis or HIV. If you are under 18 or if you don’t feel safe telling your partner, a Public Health Nurse will contact partners for you. They do this confidentially and don’t provide names. They want to make sure that anyone at risk for one of these STIs gets tested so that they can get the cure or treatment.
As for other STIs (like herpes, HPV/warts or Pubic Lice) it may be a good idea for someone to let their partner(s) know, so they can also get tested and any treatment needed. Keeping track of reportable STIs is important since a lot of times there aren’t any noticeable signs that someone has one. Untreated STIs can cause permanent damage in the body if left untreated. Always assess your safety first when telling partners that you have or may have an STI.
- Ways to Stay Safer
We can keep ourselves and our partner(s) safer from STIs by…
- Choosing abstinence (which is the fancy way of saying not having sex). If you aren’t sharing sex fluids with someone the risk is much lower. Some STIs are spread through skin-to-skin contact (like genital warts and herpes) so the lowest risk activities are ones where genitals aren’t rubbing up on each other or touching. Click here for more info on abstinence.
- Use a barrier between you and your partner during sexual activity. One of the most common barriers is a condom, but there many others: “female” condoms, sex dams, gloves, and finger condoms (cots) all help to prevent STIs from being spread. Used correctly, barriers are very effective at preventing the spread of STIs. Click here for instructions on how to use barriers.
- If you share sex toys, wash and dry them according to the instructions in between partners and use a barrier (like a condom or sex dam) on them if possible.
- Talk to your partner about using barrier methods (condoms and/or sex dams, for example) and getting tested together.
- Get tested for STIs regularly. Many STIs don’t have noticeable signs and you can’t tell by looking if you or a partner has one. Testing is quick, easy, and confidential at any teen clinic.
- Limit the number of sex partners you have (and get tested with every new partner). This can reduce your exposure to STIs.
- Use new needles every time for drug use, tattoos and piercing. This can reduce the risk of HIV and Hep C.
Questions About STIs
- What is an STI and how is it passed from person to person?
- STI means “sexually transmitted infection”. They are infections that someone can get from unprotected oral (mouth on genitals), anal (penis in anus) or vaginal (penis in vagina) sex, or from sharing sex toys. Some STIs are also passed through skin-to-skin contact (when people’s genitals/genital area are touching or rubbing together). Two people can’t create an STI, someone would have to have an STI to give it to someone else. HIV and Hepatitis C can also be spread through unprotected sex, you can learn more about those viruses and how they spread by checking out the HIV and Hepatitis C pages.
- How would you know if you have an STI?
- Having unprotected sex can put you at risk of getting STI or HIV. But looking for STIs can be kind of tricky, you might notice some signs if you have one, but often people don’t notice much. In other words, you can’t tell by looking if someone has an STI. Often our own bodies don’t tell us right away, so we might not know unless we (and our partner’s) have been tested. Some signs of STIs can be sex organ discharge that’s different from what you’re use to (like a different colour or smell). Sometimes having an STI makes it hurt to pee, or can make lumps, bumps, or a rash on the genitals. The only way to know for sure is getting tested, it’s quick, easy, and confidential at any teen clinic. Even though STIs may not have signs at first, it’s important to get them treated. If an STI is left untreated it can cause more serious problems (like pelvic inflammatory disease) which can be harder to treat.
How often you get tested depends on your level of risk (whether or not you have sex, and whether or not you use condoms and sex dams if you’re having sex). If you are sexually active, even if you have no signs of STIs you should aim to get tested about once a year. For more on the signs of STIs and where to get tested check out the other info sections on this page.
- If you get an STI will you have it forever?
- It depends on the STI. Many are curable which means that after you take the medication (usually pills or cream) you won’t have the STI anymore. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, pubic lice, trichomoniasis (trich), and syphilis are all curable. You can get a curable STI again if you have unprotected sex. If an STI cannot be cured it can be treated. HIV is an example if a virus that remains in someone’s body forever, but there is treatment to help someone stay healthier for a long time.
- Can you get an STI without having sex?
- Yes and no, it depends on a few things. Some STIs are spread through skin-to-skin contact so genital warts and herpes, or pubic lice are spread by rubbing or touching genitals together (check out the Types of STIs section above for more info). HIV and Hepatitis C can be spread through sex fluids and also through blood, so other activities like sharing needles can put someone at risk. Having said that, if you aren’t having sex or sharing sex fluids with someone your risk for STIs is very low. In fact abstaining from sex (aka, not doing it) is the most effective way of avoiding an STI. Check out the Sexuality page for more info on abstinence.
- Can you get an STI from oral sex?
- You can get an STI form oral sex. STIs live in sex fluids, if you get sex fluids in your mouth (either vaginal fluid or semen/pre-cum) from someone who has an STI you can get the STI that way. Check out the Condoms and Sex Dams page for how to make oral sex safer.
- Can I get an STI from masturbating?
- Nope. You can’t get an STI from masturbation (aka, touching yourself for sexy pleasure). Masturbation can be a healthy part of someone’s sexuality and it’s totally no risk for STIs and pregnancy. Some people masturbate and some people don’t, whatever you choose is fine.
- Can you get an STI from a toilet seat?
- Not really. The main way you get STIs is from having unprotected oral sex (mouth on genitals), anal sex (penis in anus) or vaginal sex (penis in vagina). Check out the Condoms and Sex Dams page for how to make sex safer.
- Can I get HIV from having sex?
- Yes. If someone has HIV the virus is in their sex fluids (semen, pre-cum/pre-ejaculate, vaginal fluid, and anal fluid) and can be passed by having unprotected sex. Check out the HIV page for more info on how HIV is spread and how to keep you and your partner(s) safer.
- If you only have sex with one person who doesn’t have an STI, can you still get one?
- You can`t get an STI from someone who doesn`t have one. In other words, one person has to have an infection/virus to pass on. But, you also can`t always tell by looking if you or a partner has an STI or HIV (they don’t often have noticeable signs or symptoms). Someone could have an STI or HIV and not even know it, so the only way to know for sure is to get tested. It`s quick and easy to get tested from a teen clinic and your visit with the health care provider is totally confidential. Check out the other info sections on this page to learn more about how STIs are spread and how to keep yourself and your partner(s) safer.
- Can you get an STI from using sex toys?
- You can`t get an STI from using a sex toy, but since STIs are in sex fluids they can be passed from sharing sex toys. Sharing sex toys can mean sex fluids get shared too. If you are using sex toys with a partner wash and dry them according to the instructions and depending on the type of sex toy, use a new condom on them if possible.
- How can you lower your risk of getting an STI?
- Great question, there are things we can do to lower our risk of getting STIs/HIV. Choosing abstinence and lower risk activities, using condoms and sex dams, and getting tested regularly can all reduce our risk of getting and spreading STIs and HIV. Check the Ways to Stay Safer section above for more info.
- Can you get an STI if you are in a same sex relationship?
- STIs are spread through sex fluids and genital skin-to-skin contact, so anyone who is having sex without a condom or sex dam can get one. Check the Ways to Stay Safer section above for more info.
- Does birth control protect against STIs?
- The only type of birth control that protects against STIs is condoms. Hormonal types of birth control like the pill, patch, ring, and injection (Depo) are really effective at preventing pregnancy, but don’t provide any protection against STIs or HIV. Using condoms and sex dams each and every time for oral sex (mouth on genitals), vaginal sex (penis in vagina) and anal sex (penis in anus) can help reduce the risk of STIs and HIV.
- What does PID stand for?
- PID stands for Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. PID is usually caused by an infection that moves from the vagina or cervix, up to the fallopian tubes or uterus (check out the Bodies section for a picture). PID can be caused by an untreated STI and can lead to infertility (not able to get pregnant) if left untreated.
- What is a pap test and does it hurt?
- A pap test checks for abnormal cells around the cervix that could be or could become cervical cancer. Cancer Care Manitoba suggests women over 21 who have had sex get a pap test about every 3 years. When you get tested they’ll use a speculum to gently open the vagina so that they can take a swab from around the cervix. The test usually doesn’t hurt, but some people might find it slightly uncomfortable (if you feel uncomfortable let the health care provider know). It’s a really common test and it’s very quick, and being relaxed can make it even easier. If you are worried about it try taking deep breaths, daydreaming, or listening to music in earphones. You can also bring a friend if you think it will make you more comfortable. At teen clinics they know that lot’s of people feel nervous so they try to answer any questions you have and will do their best to help you to feel comfortable.