What's an STI?
It doesn’t matter if you’re straight, lesbian, gay, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ); if you have one or multiple sexual partners; or if you have vaginal, oral or anal sex. If you or your partner(s) have unprotected sex, you can get a sexually transmitted infection (STI). While not all STIs have a cure, they all can be treated. However, if left untreated, STIs may cause serious health problems – including life-threatening infections and infertility.
STIs are very common. So with that in mind, protect yourself and your partner(s). Know the facts. Know your options. And help prevent the spread of STIs.
Anyone can get an STI
Whatever your age, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, if you have unprotected sex, you can get a sexually transmitted infection (STI). The more people you have unprotected sex with, the greater your chances of picking up an infection.
Practice safer sex
There are many easy and effective ways to protect yourself from STIs, starting with using either a male condom or a female condom during vaginal or anal sex. Male condoms and dental dams also offer protection during oral sex.
Condoms are your best protection
Whether you're male, female, straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning, protect yourself by using a condom. Condoms can reduce the risk of spreading STIs during all types of sex. Using a condom correctly every time you have sex can help you to protect yourself and your partner/s from STIs. If you and your partner share sex toys, use a condom and change the condom each time you move the toy from one area of the body to another.
When in doubt, get tested
If you've had unprotected sex and/or are not sure if you or your partner(s) has an STI, get tested. Be sure to ask your health care provider to test you for STIs - asking is the only way to know whether you are receiving the right tests. Unfortunately, not all STIs show symptoms.
Tell your partner(s)
A big part of prevention means making sure that your past partner(s) know that you have an STI. You should also let future partner(s) know if you are currently being treated for an STI, or have an STI that can't be cured (e.g., HIV, herpes, HPV).
Whether it's with a past, present or future partner(s), it's never an easy conversation to have. But keeping quiet isn't the answer, and there is support available.
If you're concerned about telling your partner that you have an STI, talk to a health care provider or someone at a sexual health clinic. They can offer resources, advice and the help you need.
What you need to talk about
It's natural to feel nervous at the thought of discussing your infection with your partner(s). The health of your partner(s) may be at risk, so they need to know what's going on. Here are some good reasons to have a conversation about STIs:
- Some STIs can cause life-threatening infections if they're not treated.
- If you're treated for a curable STI but your partner isn't, you can get reinfected.
- Telling a current or past partner gives that person the opportunity to get checked out and, if necessary, treated.
- In Canada, there is a legal duty to tell your sex partner that you have HIV before you have sex, unless certain precautions are taken. If you want to have more information about the duty to disclose HIV status under the criminal law, you can visit the HIV & AIDS Legal Clinic Ontario (HALCO) website, www.halco.org.
- You may also have a legal duty to disclose other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) before engaging in sex. While rare, there have been prosecutions in Ontario relating to herpes, and prosecutions in other parts of Canada relating to hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
Tips for having the difficult talk
Every situation is different. How you approach it comes down to your comfort level. Here are some ideas for handling the conversation:
- Prep yourself for the conversation:
Put yourself in your partner's shoes. Rehearse what you're going to say. Be honest and straightforward and if necessary, write down some notes. It may be a difficult talk, but preparing helps you appear comfortable. This will go a long way toward reassuring your partner.
- Be direct:
You could start by saying, "Before we have sex, there's something I need to tell you," and then mention your STI and how you got it. However, there's no need to share every detail of your past relationships.
- Be prepared for a negative reaction:
No matter how well you've handled the talk, you may have to deal with a person who is upset, angry or shocked. In worst-case scenarios, they may reject you as a sexual partner. But remember it is about your health, protecting yourself and others. STIs aren't just about you -they're about other people, too. As hard as it may be for you to accept a negative reaction, be proud of yourself for having the courage to be upfront about your situation and trying to protect yourself and others from becoming infected. If you're concerned about telling your partner, talk to a health care provider or someone at a sexual health clinic. They can offer resources, advice and the help you need.
- Talk to a health care provider, sexual health clinic and/or AIDS service organization support worker:
Remember, you're not the first person they've ever seen with an STI, and they can help you find the right words to explain your situation. Or, if you are worried about your partner's reaction, someone at the sexual health clinic can notify your partner for you. They won't say where the information comes from, only that they need to be treated.
You can have an STI without knowing it
In many cases, STIs such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV, don't show or have any symptoms at all-at least at the beginning. And while you may feel perfectly fine, you could still pass an STI on to someone else if you have unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex.
Some STIs show signs like unusual discharges, burning while you urinate or genital warts. But other STIs don't have obvious symptoms. You can have an STI without knowing it.
If your partner tells you he or she has an STI, ask for the name of the infection. Then visit your health care provider or sexual health clinic for testing and treatment. Testing is easy and free of charge.
Most STIs can be treated. But the best solution is to prevent getting an infection in the first place.
What to look for
Visit your health care provider or sexual health clinic if you notice:
- An unusual or smelly discharge from the vagina or penis
- A rash, sores or itching on or around the genitals
- Burning or discomfort when peeing
- Pain in the lower abdomen during or after sex
For HIV-related symptoms, please visit our HIV and AIDS page.
Testing & Treatment
If you've had unprotected sex, including oral sex, see your health care provider or go to a sexual health clinic to get tested. Once you know what you have, you can get the right treatment. It's also worth knowing so you don't pass along a sexually transmitted infection (STI) to someone else.
Whether you're lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, straight, or questioning, testing is important for your health. Get the quality health care you need from a sexual health clinic in your community. Confidentiality is assured.
Testing is easy and free of charge - see your health care provider or sexual health clinic for details.
Be sure to ask your health care provider to test you for STIs - asking is the only way to know whether you are receiving the right tests.
Most STIs can be treated and cured
Some of the most commonly reported STIs can be treated and cured. Potentially serious STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea can be cured by antibiotics. Treatment can also help to reduce symptoms, or future outbreaks (e.g., antivirals for herpes). There are also medications available to help people with HIV live longer and healthier lives.
If your test comes back positive
If you test positive for an STI, you must take action. It's important to tell your partner(s) from the past and present, or even future ones, depending on the infection. Ideally, they should be treated at the same time you are. That way they can prevent re-infecting you - and others.
How do I tell my partner(s)?
If you have concerns about telling your partner(s), speak to the counsellor who tested you and/or contact a public health nurse. They can suggest ways to handle the situation or they will contact your partner(s) for you. Your name will be kept confidential. If you decide to talk to your partner(s) yourself, learn how to talk comfortably about it.
Search the STIs
Get the information you need about sexually transmitted infections, their symptoms, how to get tested and treatment options.