The problem is, many STIs have no symptoms at all and the ones that do may be tricky to recognise.
We asked Dr Adam Cheong from Babylon Health what to do if you think you might have one and how to receive treatment safely during the pandemic.
We all know the birds and the bees. Sexually Transmitted Infections can happen when you have unprotected sexual contact, such as vaginal, anal and oral sex, with others. According to The Well Project, there are more than 25 STIs mainly spread in this way. They include the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that, globally, more than one million people get an STI every day.
Numbers may be down during lockdown (thanks to it putting the brakes on dating), but if left untreated, STIs can cause serious longer-term health problems, particularly in women, including cervical cancer, pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility.
What do I do if I think I have an STI during the pandemic?
With our medical services stretched at the moment, it can be difficult to know whether to seek help if you’re concerned about your health, but it’s important to access the services you need. “There is a misconception that you can’t get tested during the lockdown,” says Dr Cheong. “STIs are a medical condition and are a perfectly valid reason to visit a health professional. After all, in the worst case scenario, infections like chlamydia can cause long term pelvic infections and infertility in women if left untreated.”
But, it’s best to call first before visiting. “I would recommend anyone concerned they might be at risk of STI (contracted before or during lockdown) should contact their local sexual health clinic, most of whom are still operating but on a triage basis (that means calls may get put through to a doctor who will decide if it can wait, or whether it needs more urgent testing),” explains Dr Cheong.
“Many clinics are sending out kits to patient’s homes,” he adds, which means you can avoid heading out. “Other issues such as possible HIV exposure will need more careful face to face contact with a doctor to discuss and to take blood tests.”
Are the numbers of STI infections down because of lockdown?
Lockdown and social distancing has made dating IRL fairly impossible. The government imposed a sex ban preventing single Brits from different households from getting jiggy. “The number of new STI infections is likely to be down as people are in lockdown and not going out meeting new partners,” confirms Dr Cheong.
However, those who possibly contracted an STI before we locked down may have felt discouraged from getting tested. “STIs contracted before lockdown will still be out in the community,” explains Dr Cheong. “Worse still, these are potentially not being tested as people feel they can’t go out to do so.”
“The bottom line is that if you are worried about a potential STI you should get tested because delaying it can lead to more serious conditions such as chronic pelvic infections and pain, infertility, and scarring in the pelvis.”
Am I more likely to get coronavirus if I visit a sexual health clinic?
Hopefully, you can avoid visiting the clinic by relaying your symptoms over the phone and using a home kit. But, if you’re asked to come in, you’ll be at a slightly higher risk of exposure. “Anytime you step outside there will be a small risk of coronavirus transmission,” says Dr Cheong. “But sexual health centres will be taking protective measures and are likely quite safe places to go during this time.”
How do I know if I have an STI?
Often, you might not display any symptoms at all. A lot of people who have STIs may not realise they have them. As for tell-tale signs, check out our full guide to recognising STIs, which talks through the most common symptoms. But if you’re worried you have symptoms, a partner has symptoms, or you’ve had sex without a condom, the only way to know for sure is to get tested.
Where can I get tested for STIs?
Your first port of call is to contact your local clinic, if you’re unsure where that is, you can search via the NHS clinic finder by inputting your postcode. Get in touch with your clinic over the phone and they can let you know if you need to make a face-to-face visit. If you’re embarrassed to talk to anyone, you can buy test kits online from Superdrug or Let’s Get Checked (however a full screening can be quite expensive).
Or Lloyds Pharmacy offers a virtual consultation. Select the test you’re interested in and fill out a questionnaire, a clinician will confirm your suitability via email and post you out a test kit. You complete it at home then post it back to the lab. Your results will be sent to you securely online within 3 days of them receiving the samples.