Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

Also called sexually transmitted disease (STD)

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that are passed from one person to another through unprotected sex or genital contact.

Key points about STIs

  1. There are many common STIs in Aotearoa New Zealand.
  2. Anyone who is sexually active is at risk of getting an STI. 
  3. Some people are at higher risk of getting an STI – see the list below.
  4. You can reduce your chances of getting an STI by always using condoms (pukoro ure) with new partners.
  5. Not all STIs have symptoms, so regular sexual health checks are important.

What is an STI?

STIs are infections that can be passed from person to person by:

  • having unprotected sex (vaginal, anal or oral) 
  • genital to genital contact. 

Chlamydia is the most common STI in New Zealand but there are many other different types of STIs. Read more about the most common STIs.

STIs are so common that anyone who has ever had sex could get one. Whether you get one is not about you being good, bad, clean or dirty, but just about being normal and sexually active. You can reduce your chances of getting an STI by always using condoms (pukoro ure) with new partners and having regular sexual health checks.

Who is at risk of getting an STI?

Anyone who has sex or is sexually active is at risk of getting an STI. Your risk of getting an STI is higher if:

  • you have more than one sexual partner
  • you are a man who has sex with men
  • your partner has or has had more than one sexual partner
  • you have sex with someone who has an STI
  • you have sex without a condom (unprotected sex)
  • you've had STIs in the past
  • you have had exposure to infected needles and syringes, by you or your partner using intravenous drugs (injected into a vein), or through tattooing or piercing equipment – this can put you at risk of getting STIs such as hepatitis B and HIV. 

Young people (aged 15–24 years) have a higher risk of getting an STI than older people.

How can I have safer sex?

Simple ways to have safer sex include using condoms with new partners and making sure you have a reliable method of contraception if you do not want to get pregnant.  Drinking less alcohol and avoiding recreational drugs will also tend to mean you act more safely. Learn more about safer sex.

What are the symptoms of STIs?

Not all STIs have symptoms. You can have an STI without even knowing as sometimes the symptoms are so small, especially in the early stages. Because there are many different STIs, the symptoms vary. Some of the general symptoms include:

  • unusual discharge from your penis or vagina
  • itch or rash on or around your genitals
  • lumps, blisters or sores on or around your genitals
  • pain in your genital area or groin
  • pain in your penis or vagina when having sex
  • pain or a burning sensation when passing urine (peeing).

Who should have a sexual health check?

If you have more than one partner, are starting a new relationship or have recently had sex with someone new, a sexual health check or STI test is a really great idea. A sexual health check should also be part of a regular health check. 

You can be tested for STIs at a sexual health clinic, Family Planning clinic or by your GP.

When should I get tested for an STI?

It's a really good idea to get tested for an STI:

  • if you have had unprotected sex (vaginal, anal or oral) 
  • if you know your current or past partner has or has had an STI
  • before you begin a new relationship 
  • if a condom broke – get tested a few weeks later and get some tips to make sure condoms are much less likely to break next time 
  • as part of a general health check-up 
  • if you have symptoms or just feel something isn’t quite right
  • if you or your partner have shared needles for drugs, tattooing or piercing.   

What happens at a sexual health check-up?

At a sexual health check, your nurse or doctor will ask a few basic questions about your sexual history such as the following:

  • How long since your last STI check? 
  • Do you have any symptoms? 
  • Have you had a recent change of partner?
  • What types of sex have you had (some sexual activity is higher risk than others)?

These questions help them understand what tests you need. These may include the following tests:

  • A urine test – when your pee is collected in a pot.
  • Swabs – a cotton bud with a long handle is used to take a sample from your vulva, urethra or anus (depending on the STI being tested for). Often the doctor or nurse can explain to you how to take the swabs yourself and you can ask about this option if you feel more comfortable that way.
  • A physical check – the nurse or doctor will look at your genital area for any sign of infection.
  • A blood test. 

Got an STI? Tell your partner

If you have an STI, it is important to tell your partner, so they can be tested and treated as well. This reduces the spread of the STI and lessens your chance of getting it back again. It's best to tell your partner as soon as possible after finding out that you have an STI and before having sex with an untreated partner.

Some people find the experience of telling their partner awkward and difficult. If so, talk to your doctor or nurse, or contact your local sexual health clinic, or Family Planning clinic for guidance.

What if I don't get tested?

STIs will not go away by themselves, so if you get one you need to get it treated. If left untreated some STIs can be a serious health risk and can cause other conditions such as:

What if I am pregnant and have an STI?

Having an STI during pregnancy can harm your baby. Gonorrhea and chlamydia both can cause health problems in your baby, ranging from eye infections to pneumonia. Syphilis may cause miscarriage or stillbirth. HIV infection can occur in a baby.

If you are pregnant and you or your partner have had – or may have – an STI, it's important to tell your healthcare provider. Your baby may be at risk. Tests for some STIs are offered routinely during prenatal care. It is best to treat the STI early to decrease the chances that your baby also will get the infection. You and your partner both may have to be treated.

Learn more

The following links provide further information about STIs. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.    

Just the facts on STIs Just the Facts, NZ
What are the symptoms of STIs? Just the Facts, NZ
Sexually transmissible infections Family Planning, NZ
Fact sheets Auckland Sexual Health Service, NZ
STI facts Healthy Sex, NZ

References

  1. Sexually transmitted infections – summary of guidelines NZ Sexual Health Society, 2017

Reviewed by

Dr Alice Miller trained as a GP in the UK and has been working in New Zealand since 2013. She has undertaken extra study in diabetes, sexual and reproductive healthcare, and skin cancer medicine. Alice has a special interest in preventative health and self-care, which she is building on by studying for the Diploma of Public Health with the University of Otago in Wellington.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Alice Miller, FRNZCGP Last reviewed: 13 Jan 2021