STI rates could soar as we enjoy 'summer of sex' post-pandemic, says expert
The UK's first restriction-free "summer of sex" coupled with delays in NHS appointments and testing is a 'perfect storm' for STI rates to rocket, a top pharmacist warns.
"Faced with previous summers of lockdowns and social distancing, many Brits have had enough of restrictions and are now making the most of festivals, parties and live events in a summer of a sex," says Stuart Gale, Chief Pharmacist of Oxford Online Pharmacy.
Events, for example, have gone from not being permitted at all during the COVID-19 pandemic, to being capped at certain numbers, to now finally back to full capacity, while other rules like mask-wearing are no longer required by law.
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"Even before this lifting of restrictions there was a 15% increase in Gonorrhoea cases in London in 2020 – while amongst the over-65s, STI rates have doubled in the last decade," adds Gale.
"But amongst this celebratory mood of love and sex this year there are also many patients complaining they can't get NHS appointments or testing which only spells trouble for STI rates."
Common STIs you might need to get checked for include chlamydia, gonorrhoea, trichomoniasis, genital warts, genital herpes, pubic lice, scabies, syphilis and human papillomavirus (HPV).
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It seems London is officially the "STI black spot" in England, with one in four STI cases now in the capital, and rates set to rise further, highlights Gale.
"While I don’t wish to spoil summer fun, I’m urging people to get smart to the signs of STIs, get tested if they have any concerns and of course always practice safe sex, whether young or old," he advises.
And Gale's not the only one who sees how a post-lockdown summer might have an affect on our sexual activity.
"For most of us, we have never experienced such a loss of personal freedom as we have over the last few years and it is human nature to want to regain a freedom after it has been lost or threatened. This process is called 'reactance'," explains Lisa Spitz, a counsellor and psychotherapist.
This theory of 'reactance', from Brehm, J. W. in 1966, states that individuals have certain freedoms in relation to their behaviour, and if these behavioural freedoms are reduced or threatened with reduction, the individual will be 'motivationally aroused' to get them back again.
Spitz also believes STI infection rates have risen in the last few years as the social stigma of having multiple partners has diminished, among other things.
"There has also been a rise in mid-lifers (50+) getting STIs as they come out of long-term relationships and start dating again, and using condoms has perhaps not really featured in most of their sex lives previously," she adds, as getting pregnant after a certain age being less of a concern could potentially result in using less contraception.
"This summer we have the perfect storm of a cost of living crises, disruption to our daily lives with strikes and a government in free fall. The act of having sex itself is a feeling of 'being alive' and connected to another human," Spitz summarises. "We need our connections more than ever to feel safe, vital and alive."
She acknowledges that sex without contraception might feel fun in the moment but also warns it "can have long-term consequences for both your physical health and fertility, and should be avoided unless you know are in a monogamous relationship".
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Gale is aware that while GPs and sexual health clinics do treat STIs as a priority, many patients nationwide are reporting they can't get an NHS appointment at either, with online testing kits taking up to 10 days to arrive in some cases. For those who can use other online testing solutions, the are some fully approved at home STI tests available on the Oxford Online Pharmacy, but at a price.
So, while you can't control everything, to help you enjoy a summer of sex as safe as you can, he has outlined the top signs to identify a possible STI and busted some STI myths.
Key STI symptoms
Pain when peeing or during intercourse, or pain in the testicles or pelvis
Unusual discharge from the vagina, penis or anus or pus
Any rash or soreness in the genital area
Any unusual vaginal bleeding
Any warts around your genitals or anus (or mouth or throat but rarer)
Any blisters, sores or swelling around your genitals or anus
Any lumps or skins growths around your genitals or anus
It's also important to remember you can have some STIs without realising and some infections can take days or weeks to develop.
“Chlamydia, Trichomonas Vaginalis and Gonorrhoea are now the first, second and third most common STIs in the UK but can be easily treated with medication if diagnosed early," says Gale.
“If you or a partner have any symptoms of an STI or you’re worried after having sex without a condom, the next step is to get tested. Do not have sex including oral sex without a condom until you’ve been checked.”
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Fact v fiction – STI myths busted
1. STIs can only be sexually transmitted - False
Gale describes this one as potentially the biggest myth of them all, as it is generally believed that sex has to happen and fluids need to be exchanged for infections to be passed because they are 'sexually transmitted'.
“While it’s true that you’re at a higher risk if you have or have had more than one sexual partner; you also run the risk of becoming infected if you have sex with someone who has had many partners and if you don't use a condom when having sex. But for some STIs, no penetration is needed," he explains.
"Germs hide in semen, blood, vaginal secretions and also sometimes in saliva. Some, such as those that cause genital herpes and genital warts, may be spread through skin contact. You can even get hepatitis B by sharing personal items, such as toothbrushes or razors, with someone who has it."
He points out you can also be infected with trichomoniasis through contact with damp objects, such as wet towels, wet clothing or toilet seats, although it is more commonly spread by sexual contact. STIs can also spread if you share needles when injecting intravenous (through a vein) drugs.
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2. You cannot be ‘cured’ of an STI – Both true and false
This depends on whether it’s bacterial, viral or parasitic, which are the three basic types STIs can be broken down into.
"Bacterial and parasitic infections can be cured. Viral infections can be treated, but not completely cured," says Gale.
“Bacterial STIs include Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea and Syphilis. Viral STIs include HIV, genital herpes, genital warts (HPV) and Hepatitis B. Trichomoniasis is caused by a parasite.”
3. Older people are not at risk of STIs – False
When we think of STIs we picture young people, but this isn't entirely representative.
"Any older person still having an active sex life with new or different partners is just as at risk of an STI as younger age groups," Gale sets straight.
"In fact, STIs have doubled in the last decade for the over 65s according to Public Health England data and syphilis diagnoses increased by 86% in the over 65s between 2015 and 2019."
For more information on STIs, when to go to a sexual health clinic and what happens, see this NHS website page.