Sex education – sexually transmitted infections

This article discusses sexually transmitted infections (STI) or sexually transmitted diseases (STD) as part of sex education for teenagers in New Zealand today.

What are sexually transmitted infections, or STI?

These are infections that are transmissible through oral sex, vaginal sex or anal sex, through the exchange of blood, semen or vaginal fluid – or even through skin to skin contact. It is impossible to know for sure whether someone has a sexually transmissible infection as some do not have any visible symptoms, but can still cause health and fertility problems.

Some infections are bacterial, some are viral, some are fungal. Therefore they have different modes of treatment. While some are easily curable, some are not.

What are the common signs and symptoms of STIs?

  • Discomfort or pain or stinging sensation when passing urine
  • A discharge from the vagina or penis that looks different to normal
  • Blisters, sores or rashes around or on the genitals
  • Pain or bleeding during sex, or after sex
  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Itchiness around the genitals
  • Irregular bleeding
  • There may be no symptoms what so ever – having an infection screen is the only sure way if you are in any doubt. If you have recently changed partners, had unprotected sex, had unusual symptoms – visit your local clinic or doctor.

What are the most common STI types that teenagers need to be aware of?

These are some of the sexually transmitted infections that people are at risk of in New Zealand.

Chlamydia

This is a very common sexually transmitted infection in New Zealand and Australia. It is a bacterial infection that is easily treated with antibiotic tablets.

The symptoms are:-

  • Burning and itchiness
  • Unusual discharge
  • Pain
  • In 75% of cases there are no symptoms.

If in doubt, get it checked out.

If left untreated it can cause Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (painful, widespread infection) and infertility.

Genital Herpes

This infection is very contagious and is caused by a virus called herpes simplex 2. Herpes simplex 1 causes common cold sores on the mouth and nose. Once exposed to the virus it will always be present in the body, but there will only be symptoms during an outbreak, when sores will be visible on the skin or mucous membranes of the genitals.

The symptoms are:–

  • Painful blisters which crust over and then heal in 2-12 days
  • Also possibly fever, aching muscles, pain on passing urine or an unusual discharge.

There is no cure, but your doctor may give you medication to reduce the length of the outbreak and relieve discomfort. Avoid sexual intercourse during an outbreak and avoid touching the sores.

Hepatitis B

This is a serious liver disease which can be passed from person to person through unprotected sexual intercourse or through blood – on needles from drug sharing or tattooists, for example.

The symptoms are:–

  • Flu like symptoms, such as fever, vomiting, loss of appetite
  • Jaundice
  • Abdominal pain.

Once hepatitis B becomes chronic it can cause long term liver damage and cannot be cured. The spread is reduced by safe sexual practices and widespread immunisation programmes.

Syphilis

This is a bacterial infection, passed on through sex or childbirth. The infection spreads from the sores into the blood, if untreated, and results in a rash and other health problems.

The symptoms are:-

  • Initially, sores on the penis or vagina
  • Followed by a rash on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, fever and swollen glands and sore throat
  • Years later it may also affect the brain, heart and spinal cord, if it is not treated.

If syphilis is detected by a blood test, it can be treated with penicillin.

Gonorrhoea

Gonorrhoea, or ‘the clap’ is a bacterial infection, passed on through sexual intercourse or oral sex.

The symptoms are:-

  • Unusual discharge
  • Pain on passing urine

If left untreated:–

  • Infertility may result as the disease causes inflammation and possible blockages of the fallopian tubes in women.
  • Occasionally it can cause widespread ill-health such as a rash or painful joints, after spreading through the veins to other parts of the body. It can also cause meningitis or inflammation of the heart.

Gonorrhoea is treated with antibiotics.

HIV/AIDS

HIV is a virus which causes AIDS. It is passed from person to person during sexual intercourse or sharing needles and equipment when taking drugs. HIV can also be passed from mother to baby and rarely from a blood transfusion. When a person has AIDS their body lacks the ability to fight off diseases that would not normally be so serious.

A person with HIV will not normally have any symptoms, although some people experience mild flu like symptoms after transmitting the virus. A person with AIDS may have the following symptoms:-

  • Fatigue and weight loss
  • Persistent infections
  • Skin rashes
  • Genital, anal and oral sores from herpes infections
  • Fevers

There is no cure for HIV/AIDS as it is a virus. Drugs are sometimes available (antiretroviral medication) to slow the progress of the disease.

What information do teenagers need about sexually transmitted infections?

When approaching sexual education and sexually transmitted disease with your children, try to take the same approach that you would for discussing the risks of Meningitis B or Hepatitis A. Teenagers have a great capacity for information and they are constantly bombarded with messages that they have to decipher and judge to be true or otherwise. As parents we must ensure that our messages are positive, accurate and straightforward. ‘Shock/horror tactics’ may scare your children initially into curtailing their behaviour, but in the long term they will realise that the outcomes are unlikely and your messages will hold less credibility ion their eyes. Beware of statistics – they often serve to deliver exaggerated messages.

Teenagers need to know the following –

  • What is the disease?
  • How do you catch it?
  • What are the symptoms, if any?
  • What are the risks?
  • And how do you prevent it spreading?

Help your child to make good, safe choices. The message is simple –

If you choose to have sex, use a condom every time.

Useful articles

This article is part of a series of articles, including –

Sex Education – An Introduction

Sex Education – The Practicalities

Sexual Education and Emotions

For more information on Contraception, click here.

The Kiwi Families Team

This information was compiled by the Kiwi Families team.

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