Sexual Health & STIs: An Overview

Everything you need to know about sexual health and STIs, including what the terms mean, where you can get tested for them, and how we can treat them.

What is sexual health?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines sexual health as "a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality". For the WHO, sexual health is more than just "the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity", but rather "a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships". They close their definition by writing that "for sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled".

More commonly, when the term 'sexual health' is used by healthcare providers, it is to refer to the provision of screening, treatment and management programmes for sexually transmitted infections, though the WHO's definition is of course still useful in terms of a more positive overall image of sexual health and our attitudes towards sex and sexuality.

What are sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?

Sexually transmitted infections are infections that are caught or passed on through unprotected sex or genital contact.

What are sexual health conditions?

There are many conditions that can affect the sexual organs, but aren't infections. Sexual health conditions result from urinary tract infections (UTIs), mental health issues or the natural process of ageing. In other words, sexual health conditions impact the sexual organs, but are not necessarily transmitted sexually.

What is the difference between STIs and STDs?

STI stands for sexually transmitted infection, and STD stands for sexually transmitted disease. At first, these two terms seem interchangeable, but the "infection" rather than "disease" makes a world of difference. Medically speaking, an 'infection' is refers to bacteria, viruses or parasites entering the body. That's all.

An infection can cause symptoms and medical complications, but this is not an essential part of the definition of an infection. A disease, on the other hand, by its very definition will cause symptoms and/or medical complications. An STD is an example of an STI for example, but an STI is not an example of an STD.

How do you get an STI or sexual health condition?

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are acquired during vaginal, anal and oral sex, passing from person to person in blood, semen or vaginal and other bodily fluids. 

Some STIs or sexual health conditions can be passed through non-sexual means such as via the blood, or even from mother to child during pregnancy. Speak to a doctor if you suspect this to be the case.

Your sexual health and STI questions, answered

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Where can you get checked for STIs?

You can get tested for sexually transmitted infections and sexual health conditions at the following:

How long does it take to get STI test results back?

It is no secret how easily colds, flu and RTIs can be spread, but there are measures you can implement to reduce the risk:

  • Keeping your hands clean with warm water and soap
  • Using tissues to catch germs when you cough, sneeze or blow your nose
  • Disposing of used tissues as soon as possible

How are STIs treated?

There is evidence to suggest that regular physical activity can improve your chances of avoiding the development of cold and flu entirely. Our in-house exercise physiologist Ben Fletcher has written a comprehensive blog on exactly this subject, but the major takeaway points are as follows:

  • Studies have shown that exercise helps to strengthen the immune system, equipping the body to more effectively fight off infections like colds, flu and RTIs
  • It is safe to exercise when you have a cold, the flu or an RTI – but be sensible, don't try to break any records or personal bests
  • Be wary of exercising when taking medicine that increases your heart rate as a side effect or risk experiencing shortness of breath, or trouble breathing altogether
  • It is less safe to exercise when you are feverish, as exercising in these circumstances puts more stress on the body than is really necessary
Illustration of a consultation between patient and doctor
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