Why Do Young People Keep Their STIs a Secret?
STIs are on a sharp rise in the UK. 2018 saw a 5% increase in the diagnosis of STIs in the UK compared to the previous year . If this trend is to continue as some health experts believe it will we can only expect this number to rise in 2019/2020 .
Why Are STI Rates Rising?
There are a multitude of reasons for the rise in STI rates within the UK, from increased testing to less condom usage. Infact 1 in 10 sexually active young people reported never having used protection, which could be a factor in the increased diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections .
For a lot of young people entering adulthood university and independence coincide with new sexual experiences and multiple partners. These experiences are important for us to find out who we are and what we like, but should always be done safely by using contraception to avoid pregnancy (find out the different types of contraception in our handy A-Z guide) and condoms to avoid STIs, so it is surprising to learn that almost 50% of young people experience their first sexual encounter without protection!
But let’s face it, mistakes happen and sometimes protection isn’t used or a condom could break. Sadly even those who know they have an STI will not inform their partner and therefore the infection spreads. A report studying college age males in the US found that 20% would not tell their sexual partner if they had and STI . This stems from a culture of embarrassment, shame and misinformation around sexual health, though the risks for the individual run much deeper than that. It’s also important to know that knowingly transmitting an STI to someone is illegal and could result in legal action .
Why People Aren’t Telling Their Sexual Partners About An STI
The ‘perceived shame and stigma about STIs’  can lead to many young people not disclosing their STI status to their partners. Our sexual history is private and personal and therefore not something everyone is comfortable discussing, especially if you are new to sex.
This leads on to one of the main reasons people find it difficult to tell their partners, it can feel embarrassing and shameful. In fact 58% of young people would feel uncomfortable telling their sexual partner . STIs can come with a presumption of promiscuity (though this is definitely not the case), and finding out you may have passed an STI on to someone else can feel humiliating.
Some people may even avoid sex entirely once they have found out about an STI. Although this prevents infecting anyone else, many STIs have lifelong consequences such as infertility unless treated. The best course of action is to ALWAYS inform your sexual partners, use a condom if you do have sex and get as soon as you can.
For those who are moving away from home or starting university there is a lot of social and peer pressure, and often STIs are overlooked as a ‘taboo’ subject. 56% of men and 43% of women said that it is difficult to talk about STIs with friends  which only adds to the stigma surrounding it.
They Haven’t Been Tested
Many people will not know they even have an STI, for example Chlamydia and Genital Herpes often go unnoticed and symptom-less. This could mean you do not find out about your STI until months or even years after the initial infection, adding to the embarrassment of having to tell past partners. This is why it is so important to use protection with a new partner, and get tested regularly after each new encounter, especially if protection was not used.
They Have No Symptoms
Some people may think that without symptoms STIs are not contagious. This is unfortunately not true, which is why Chlamydia is sometimes referred to as the ‘silent STI’. In the case of Herpes, some people may not realise that cold sores on the face and lips can be passed on through kissing and oral sex.
Importance of Discussing STIs Risks and Potential Outcomes
These reasons and more make it difficult for young people to tell their partner/partners of a positive STI test result. By not telling a partner or not getting treatment you could risk developing some serious symptoms and life long effects such as:
Chlamydia is one of the most common STIs, particularly for young adults and it is treated with a short course of antibiotics, commonly Doxycycline or Azithromycin. Although often symptom-less, symptoms can include:
• pain or burning while peeing
• pain during sex
• lower belly pain
• abnormal vaginal discharge (may be yellowish and have a strong smell)
• bleeding between periods
• pus or a watery/milky discharge from the penis
• swollen or tender testicles which can lead to infertility
• pain, discharge and/or bleeding around the anus
• Pelvic Inflammatory disease in women which can lead to infertility
Herpes can cause cold sores around the lips and face and blisters around the genitals and anus. It is sometimes symptom-less, and sores can take months or even years to appear. It is easily treated with Aciclovir cream or Aciclovir tablets. Although a life long condition, it can be managed (find out some Herpes home remedy treatments here). The symptoms include:
• Itching around genitals
• Burning sensation when passing urine
• Swollen lymph glands
• Cold sores and blisters
Gonorrhea is a bacterial infection spread through sexual contact, it is one of the most common STIs in the UK. It can be symptom-less buy can present symptoms including:
• An unusual discharge from the vagina/penis
• Inflammation of the foreskin in men
• Pain or a burning sensation when passing urine
• Pain or tenderness in the lower abdominal area
• Women bleeding between periods, heavier periods and bleeding after sexual intercourse.
• Pelvic inflammatory disease which can cause infertility in women
• It can also pass on to the babies of pregnant mothers and cause blindness
Getting tested for an STI is not as scary as you think! Find out how in our beginners guide to STI tests. If your have a positive result getting treated is easy. Simply go to you local GP or GUM clinic, or use the NHS chlamydia test kit locator to find a free test in your area.
We provide treatments for Chlamydia and Gential Herpes. If you have any questions about STIs you can always use our Ask a Pharmacist service for free and confidential advice.
1. Sexually transmitted infections and screening for chlamydia in England | Public Health England
2. Diagnosis of STI’s continue to rise in Scotland | Health Protection Scotland
6. Pass on herpes, go to jail? | The Guardian
7. Identifying and understanding barriers to sexually transmissible infection testing among young people | Sussex Research Online
1. Find A Sexual Health Clinic | NHS
2. Doxycycline | National Institute For Health And Care Excellence
4.NHS Chlamydia Test Locator | NHS