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STIs

A sexually transmitted infection (STI) is any kind of bacterial or viral infection that can be passed on through sex. If you have had unprotected sex, it is important that you test for STIs as soon as possible.

It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve had sex or how many partners you’ve had: anyone can get an STI.

STI testing and treatment is free for all ages so you won’t have to pay anything.

Find out how to get a free STI test in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.


What is unprotected sex?

Unprotected sex refers to any form of sexual contact where a barrier method of contraception (such as a condom or female/internal condom) has not been used.

This includes:

  • Vaginal sex (penis-in-vagina sex)
  • Oral sex (mouth-to-genital contact)
  • Anal sex (penis-in-anus sex)
  • Fingering or hand jobs (hand-to-genital contact)

If you have had unprotected vaginal sex, you also need to consider using emergency contraception. Find out more about emergency contraception.


What are the types of STI?

There are a number of different STIs. The good news is that most of them are easily treated, and getting tested and treated is free and confidential.

See below for the different types of STIs, and useful information on getting tested.


Why should I have an STI test?

Some STIs, like chlamydia and gonorrhoea, don’t always present symptoms so a person can have them without knowing. However, if you have had unprotected sex, it is important that you test for STIs as soon as possible as they can cause health problems at a later point and can be passed on to others if not treated.

See below for more information about STIs and other infections.

Read about why you should get tested.

Remember: if you're over 16, you can order a free STI home test kit.




Do I have an STI? I don't have symptoms...

Anyone can get an STI - it doesn’t matter how many times they’ve had sex or how many people they’ve had sex with, we’re all at risk. And remember, you may or may not have symptoms, so that is not a reliable way of knowing if you have an STI or not.

I don't have symptoms

Some people won’t ever experience any symptoms, and yet they’re still infected. For others, symptoms can take months to appear. For example:

  • 75% of women and 50% of men don’t have any obvious signs or symptoms of chlamydia.
  • 10% of men and 50% of women experience no signs or symptoms of gonorrhoea.
  • Many people may not get any visible signs or symptoms of genital herpes.
  • Around 80% of people with HIV will experience a short, two week illness soon after getting the virus but this could be confused with flu.
  • Usually the early symptoms of syphilis are mild which may lead to some people ignoring them.
  • Most people don’t have any visible symptoms of genital warts and it can be months or even years before any warts appear.

What are the symptoms of an STI?

Below are some of the symptoms most commonly associated with STIs. Remember though, without being examined and tested by a health professional, you can’t know for certain what your symptoms are caused by. Find out more about STIs and other infections via the links at the bottom of this page.

Unusual discharge

Discharge is fluid or mucus that comes out of your body. Some discharge is perfectly normal and we may all experience this from time to time. However, if you notice discharge from the vagina, penis or rectum that is unusual for you, it could be an STI.

  • Unusual discharge from the vagina, penis or rectum could be chlamydia.
  • Unusual green or yellow discharge from the vagina, or green yellow or white discharge from the tip of the penis could be gonorrhoea.
  • A frothy, yellow-green and/or fishy smelling vaginal discharge, or a thin, white discharge from the penis could be trichomoniasis.
  • A white or cloudy discharge from the tip of the penis can be caused by urethritis (this is not an STI but can be a result of an STI).
  • A vaginal discharge that has no smell but is either thick and white (a bit like cottage cheese) or thin and watery could be thrush (this is not an STI). Similarly, a cottage-cheese like discharge under the foreskin could also be thrush.
  • Unusual discharge can also be caused by vaginitis (this is not an STI).

Stinging, tingling, burning or itching

  • Burning and itching in the genital area could be chlamydia.
  • Stinging, tingling or itching in the genital or anal area could be genital herpes.
  • Itching, swelling and soreness of the penis or vagina could be trichomoniasis.
  • Itching, irritation or inflammation in the affected areas could be public lice (you may also be able to see the lice and their eggs).
  • Itching and soreness around the entrance of the vagina, and/or well as stinging when you wee, could be thrush (this is not an STI). Similarly, if the penis becomes sore, itchy and inflamed, this could be thrush.
  • Irritation or itching of the vagina can also be caused by vaginitis (this is not an STI).

Painful swelling of penis, testicles or foreskin

  • Painful swelling of testicles could be chlamydia or gonorrhoea (this is rare).
  • Painful swelling of the foreskin could be gonorrhoea.
  • Swelling and soreness of the penis could be trichomoniasis.
  • The tip of the penis feeling irritated or sore can be caused by urethritis (this is not an STI)

Soreness of swelling of the vagina

  • Vaginal itching, swelling and soreness could be trichomoniasis.

Pain, burning or an increase in your weeing

  • Pain when peeing could be chlamydia, gonorrhoea or trichomoniasis.
  • Pain while having sex and/or during ejaculation could be trichomoniasis, as could needing to wee more often.
  • A desperate and frequent need to wee but only passing small amounts could be cystitis, as well as pain, burning or stinging when you wee. Wee that is dark, cloudy, smelly and/or has traces of blood in it is another symptom of cystitis. (Cystitis is not an STI but can be a result of an STI)
  • Pain when you wee can also be caused by vaginitis (this is not an STI).
  • Pain, burning or stinging when weeing, as well as a frequent need to wee, can be caused by urethritis (this is not an STI).

Irregular bleeding

  • This could be caused by chlamydia.
  • Light bleeding or spotting can be caused by vaginitis (this is not an STI).
  • Irregular bleeding pattern may also be due to contraception. Find out more about contraception.

Pain or tenderness in the lower abdomen (tummy)

  • Pain or tenderness in the lower abdomen could be chlamydia or gonorrhoea.
  • Lower abdominal (tummy) pain could also be trichomoniasis.
  • Pain directly above your pubic area, lower back or abdomen could be cystitis (this is not an STI).
  • Pain or tenderness in the lower abdomen could also be for other reasons such as ectopic pregnancy or ovulation.

Pain or bleeding during sex

  • Abdominal pain in people with a vagina during vaginal sex could be chlamydia.
  • Pain during sex and/or ejaculation (and while weeing) could be trichomoniasis.
  • Bleeding during or after sex could be chlamydia.
  • Pain for people with vaginas during sex can also be caused by vaginitis (this is not an STI).

A strong, unpleasant smell from the vagina after sex

  • This can be a sign of vaginitis (this is not an STI).

Blisters or sores

  • Small fluid-filled blisters in the genital or anal area, buttocks or tops of the thighs which burst to leave small, red painful sores, could be genital herpes.
  • A small painless sore on the vagina, penis or anus could be the first stage of syphilis.
  • Blisters or sores could also be molluscum.

Black powder in your underwear

  • This could be pubic lice (this is the droppings from the lice).

Brown eggs on pubic or other body hair

  • This could be pubic lice.

Sky-blue spots or very tiny specs of blood on the skin

  • This could be pubic lice and is caused by lice bites.

Is it always an STI?

Some of the symptoms of STIs can also be caused by other infections, such as thrush, vaginitis, bacterial vaginosis (BV), urethritis, proctitis or cystitis.

Pain or tenderness in the lower abdomen could also be for other reasons such as ectopic pregnancy or ovulation.

If you are experiencing any symptoms, it is best to visit a sexual health service or GP as soon as possible for diagnosis and treatment.

See below for more information about STIs and other infections.


Where can I get tested for STIs?

You can get tested for STIs at a sexual health clinic, some GP services and in some other places in the community which have special clinics for certain groups of people.

If you live in Cornwall or the Isles of Scilly, you can also order a test online from SH:24.


How do STI tests work?

Depending on your symptoms, STI tests might involve:

  • Giving a urine (wee) sample
  • Giving a blood sample
  • Taking swabs from the urethra (the tube urine comes out of)
  • Taking swabs from the vagina
  • A visual examination of your genitals

Blood samples and swabs for some STIs can be completed at home using STI test kits. If you test positive for an STI, or if you don’t want to test at home, you can visit a sexual health service for testing, treatment and support.

When you request an STI test, our clinicians will discuss with you what tests they think you will need and these tests will probably depend on how you answer some questions about your medical and sexual health.

These questions will include:

  • When you last had sex
  • Whether you’ve had any unprotected sex
  • Whether you have any symptoms

It is recommended that you answer these questions as honestly as possible so you can get the help and advice you need. There’s no need to be embarrassed - the people who work in sexual health clinics have seen and heard it all.

You will be asked how you would like to receive your test results; this can be via phone, text message or unmarked post. Depending on the type of test you have, some results are available straight away and you may be given treatment to take away with you on the day, while others will need to be sent away to a laboratory after which you will usually be contacted in 1-2 weeks.

If you test positive for an STI, you will be asked to come back to the clinic to discuss treatment. The clinic can also notify your previous sexual partners through anonymous ‘partner notification’ if you don’t feel comfortable doing this yourself.

Find out more about getting tested.


How are STIs treated?

Most STIs can be treated with a short course of antibiotics. Some STIs such as HIV cannot be cured, but they can be treated to prevent them from getting worse.


How can I protect myself from STIs?

STIs can be caught during oral (mouth-to-genital), vaginal or anal sex and some can also be passed through sexual touching and skin-to-skin contact – so the best way to avoid STIs is to use a condom every time you have sex.

Even if you are using another method of contraception such as the pill, implant, patch, contraceptive vaginal ring, IUD or IUS – it’s important to use condoms as well to protect from STIs.


Types of STI