Sexually Transmitted DIseases

STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) are infections (often referred to as STIs) which can be contracted and spread through unprotected sex (oral, anal or vaginal). They are usually easily treatable but if left untreated, they can go on to cause longer-term problems. There were over 447, 000 reported STD cases in England alone in 2018.

What are the types and symptoms of STDs?

The most common STDs include:

  • Chlamydia – the most commonly contracted in the UK
  • Gonorrhoea – which is at the highest level in the UK for 40 years
  • Trichomoniasis
  • Genital warts/herpes
  • Pubic lice
  • Scabies
  • Syphilis

Symptoms of these conditions may include:

  • Pain when urinating or during sex
  • Needing to urinate more frequently (trichomoniasis in men)
  • Swelling and redness of the penis and foreskin (trichomoniasis in men)
  • Testicular pain and swelling (chlamydia)
  • Genital/anal rash, itching or blistering
  • Abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding
  • Lumps or skin growths around the genitals/anus
  • White patches in the mouth (syphilis)
  • Blotchy rash on palms and soles of the feet (syphilis)
  • Swollen glands, headaches and joint pain (syphilis)

Some of the long-term symptoms of STDs (if untreated) include:

  • Infertility
  • Pelvic inflammatory disease
  • Epididymo-orchitis (inflammation of the testicles)
  • Arthritis
  • Passing the STD onto an unborn baby if contracted by a pregnant woman, or stillbirth or miscarriage in serious cases.

How do STDs get diagnosed and treated?

Anyone who is sexually active and changes sexual partners is advised to go for a precautionary STI test at a local clinic or doctors’ surgery, even if they do not present with any symptoms.

Some people may not display symptoms even though they are infected, so it is recommended to exercise caution and go for regular check-ups, particularly as STDs such as gonorrhoea are on the rise in the UK.

An STD test can involve a blood test; urine test; vaginal or anal swab or swab of the penis. These tests can also be carried out at home with a self-testing kit which is then posted.

If a person suspects they have an STD, it may be necessary to have an in-person examination, such as for genital warts.

Many STDs can be treated with antibiotics. Gonorrhoea treatment involves an antibiotic injection as well as a tablet and syphilis a series of injections.

Genital warts are treated with a topical cream over the course of weeks, cryotherapy (freezing warts off) or surgery involving laser or cauterising treatment. They are not curable and may return over the course of someone’s life, as may herpes.

A person can reduce their risk of contracting an STD by using protection such as a condom for vaginal, anal and oral sex with a man, or dental dam with a female. Sex toys should also be washed between uses. 

Some STDs can be passed on through close contact without sex – such as public lice – and chlamydia can be contracted if infected semen or vaginal fluid gets into a person’s eye.

What can employers do on the subject of STDs?

There is no legal obligation for an employee to tell their employer about their STD as many can be treated in a number of days or weeks and do not affect work performance in the vast majority of cases. This is different for HIV: it must be disclosed if the person with HIV works in an invasive healthcare setting.

Most employees will tell their employer what reasonable adjustments they need, if they do require adjustments. This may be the case with STDs if the employee is experiencing pain as a symptom or if they require time off to attend repeat appointments to treat a chronic STD (which may come under the reasonable adjustments an employer is required to make under the Equality Act 2010).

If the employee does not disclose a health issue or disability which may affect their performance upfront, an employer should broach the subject sensitively if they suspect that there may be a disability behind the employee’s reduced performance.

It is also in an employer’s interest to promote education and awareness in the workplace about STDs generally as they could pose a risk to employee absence and reduced productivity.

STD Signposting

Terence Higgins Trustthe UK’s largest sexual health charity, providing information on sexual health and STDs, guidance on where to seek treatment or find a test and raising awareness for better sexual health among the UK population (0808 802 1221).

British Association for Sexual Health and HIV – organisation promoting awareness of STDs, as well as training and research in the field of sexual health. They also work to ensure that government provisions of sexual health care are adequate to cater to the population’s needs (01625 664523).

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