By Sarah Wild, healthcare journalist and editor
It’s better to be safe than sorry. But if you weren’t safe, it’s time to get practical (plenty of time to feel sorry about things later).
If you’ve had sex without a condom – and unless you are in a monogamous relationship, are not worried about pregnancy, and were tested for STIs at the outset – you haven’t been safe.
You may be a lesbian, a ‘top’, a generally celibate singleton having a rare one-night stand, or a (recent) virgin. STIs do not respect gender, sexuality, age or virtue, and you can get an STI if you have only had sex once. Some sexual activities (eg receiving anal sex) are more risky than others.
By the way, ‘not using a condom’ might mean that the condom split; you used it late in the day; you are ‘a bit hazy about what happened’. Vaginal, oral and anal sex all carry risks.
Didn’t think oral would count? It does: syphilis, genital herpes and gonorrhoea are commonly caught via oral sex and there are dental dams produced specifically to protect you.
First things first: if you suspect you have an existing STI, or have had unprotected sex with other people, be honest with last night’s partner so that they can take care of themselves.
Next… heterosexual women (not using another contraceptive) should consider pregnancy (and STIs). Note that the pregnancy rate in women aged over 35 is at an all-time high, so don’t assume you cannot conceive.
There are two emergency contraceptive ‘morning after’ pills (Levonelle and EllaOne), which must be taken within 72 hours and 120 hours of unprotected sex, respectively. Both delay ovulation and are available free via GPs and other NHS sexual health services (or sold in pharmacies). Alternatively, the IUD (coil) can be inserted into the uterus up to five days after unprotected sex.
The post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to prevent HIV is not to be taken lightly! Started up to 72-hours after exposure, it comprises two-to-three antiretroviral medications taken for 28 days, and can have serious side effects. A health professional will take into account the type of sex you have had and with whom, to ascertain whether you might be at risk of contracting HIV.
For other STIs such as HPV, which can cause genital warts (and cervical cancer); gonorrhoea; chlamydia; syphilis; herpes; and hepatitis A, B and C, it’s a question of getting tested via your GP or other sexual health service. NHS services are free, and confidential. There is no single test for all STIs (most involve urine or blood samples, and swabs) and time frames for testing (and results) differ.
STIs may not cause immediate (or any) symptoms, so don’t ‘hope for the best’, see a health professional and don’t have unprotected sex again until you’ve been given the all-clear.
There’s no need to beat yourself up (although a slap on the wrist might be in order?!).
Pic credit: Annie Mole