Anyone who is sexually active is at risk of getting an STI.
Some people are at higher risk of getting an STI – see the list below.
You can reduce your chances of getting an STI by always using condoms(pukoro ure)with new partners.
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. (Villainesse, NZ, 2018)
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. (Just the Facts, NZ, 2019)
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:
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.
The following links provide further information about STIs. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.
Dr Alice Millertrained 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
What are the different types of STIs?
There are many different STIs. The following is a brief description of the most common ones. Click on the links below for more detailed information.
Chlamydia is the most commonly diagnosed STI in New Zealand. It affects both men and women. Most people who have chlamydia don't show any symptoms – but they can still infect other people. Chlamydia can be easily treated with antibiotics. Left untreated, chlamydia can cause infertility.
Gonorrhoea is very common in people aged under 25 years. About half of women and one in 10 of men who have gonorrhoea don't experience any symptoms and don't know they're infected. In women, gonorrhoea can cause pain or a burning sensation when urinating (peeing), a vaginal discharge (often watery, yellow or green), pain in your lower abdomen (tummy) during or after sex, and bleeding during or after sex or between periods, sometimes causing heavy periods.
In men, gonorrhoea can cause pain or a burning sensation when urinating (peeing), a white, yellow or green discharge from the tip of your penis, and pain or tenderness in your testicles. It's also possible to have a gonorrhoea infection in your rectum, throat or eyes.
Syphilis enters your body through tiny breaks in your skin, mainly in your genital area or mouth. Many people do not get any symptoms and would not know they had syphilis without having a blood test. Treatment is normally with injections of an antibiotic called benzathine penicillin. If left untreated, the syphilis bacteria eventually causes damage to your internal organs. People without symptoms can still develop these problems later if their syphilis is not treated.
Both men and women can get trichomoniasis, but it is more common in women. In women, the infection can cause a frothy yellow or watery vaginal discharge that has an unpleasant smell, soreness or itching around your vagina, and pain when passing urine (peeing).
In men, trichomoniasis rarely causes symptoms. You may experience pain or burning after passing urine (peeing), a whitish discharge, or an inflamed foreskin.
Genital warts are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). They appear as small fleshy growths, bumps or skin changes, on or around your genital or anal area. The warts are usually painless, but you may notice some itching or redness. Sometimes, they can cause bleeding. You don't need to have penetrative sex to pass the infection on because HPV is spread by skin-to-skin contact. Several treatments are available for genital warts, including creams and freezing the warts (cryotherapy).
There is now a vaccine available that protects against HPV including the types that cause genital warts. It is recommended to be given at age 11–12 years but is free in New Zealand for anyone aged 9–26 years.
Genital herpes is caused by a virus known as the herpes simplex virus (HSV).The symptoms of genital herpes are similar to cold sores found on your mouth, except they appear on your genital skin. Small, painful blisters or sores usually develop, which may cause itching or tingling, or make it painful to urinate (pee). After you've been infected, the virus can remain dormant (inactive) and certain triggers can reactivate the virus, causing the blisters to develop. Most people with genital herpes don’t have any symptoms and the virus can be passed on by people with no symptoms. Genital herpes cannot be cured; however, symptoms can be treated.
Hepatitis B is a viral infection that causes inflammation of your liver. Some people do not have any symptoms, but others can have symptoms such as feeling sick or vomiting, lack of appetite, flu-like symptoms (such as tiredness, general aches and pains or headaches), abdominal (tummy) pain, clay-coloured bowel motions and/or dark-coloured urine and yellowing of your skin and eyes (known as jaundice). One of the most effective ways to avoid getting hepatitis B is get immunised with the hepatitis B vaccine.
HIV is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus which causes damage to your body's immune system and impairs your ability to fight disease-causing organisms. HIV is most commonly passed on through unprotected sex. Without treatment, some people with HIV may develop the potentially life-threatening condition known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). There's no cure for HIV, but there are treatments that allow most people to live a long and otherwise healthy life.
Pubic lice, also called crabs, are usually found in pubic hair but can live in your underarm hair, body hair, beards and sometimes eyebrows or eyelashes. They are easily passed to others through close genital contact. The lice crawl from hair to hair but don't jump or fly from person to person. It may take several weeks for you to notice any symptoms. Most people experience itching, and you may notice the lice or eggs on your hairs. Pubic lice are treated with special creams, lotions or shampoos available from your pharmacy or your GP. You don't need to shave off your pubic hair or body hair.
Te Whāriki TakapouAMāori health promotion organisation specialising in kaupapa Maori sexuality education for rangatahi Māori and whānau. Village CollectiveEmpowering Pasifika youth through sexual and reproductive health education. Shakti InternationalA website providing culturally competent support services for women, children and families of Asian, African and Middle Eastern origin.