Optimum sexual health depends on a number of factors, namely: positive self-image, knowing one’s genital anatomy and understanding it’s function and becoming better informed about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The ability to communicate sexual thoughts, fantasies and anxieties are also important in obtaining healthy sexual attitudes, which will benefit both mind and body.
The importance of treating Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Sexually transmitted diseases are uncomfortable and embarrassing and they may cause a number of other serious problems:
- In women STDs can spread into the uterus (womb) and cause serious disease.
- If STDs are not treated they can damage the fallopian tubes and this makes some women sterile (unable to have a baby).
- Later in life men may have difficulty passing urine because STDs can cause blockage of the urethra (urine tube).
- If you have an STD, it is much easier for you to ‘catch’ HIV/AIDS. This is because the skin is damaged and the AIDS virus can get into your body more easily.
- Some STDs such as AIDS and Syphilis can harm or even kill your unborn child, by passing into the blood of the baby.
- Some STDs such as Gonorrhoea and Herpes can infect your baby as it is being born.
- Cancer of the cervix (mouth of the womb) may develop in some women who have genital warts.
- Not only are you risking your own life, but also those dearest to you.
HIV and AIDS
AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) is a complex disease that attacks the very cells that should help the body in fighting off infection. The virus, which is spread by the mixing of blood and bodily fluids, causes the immune system to degenerate, leaving the sufferer at risk to a variety of other infections and diseases of the lungs, skin, digestive and nervous system.
AIDS was first officially recognised in America in 1981, when within three months, four self-confessed young homosexual men were diagnosed as suffering from an unusual lung infection – the type which would only normally occur when the body’s immune responses are weakened.
Since then the disease has spread rapidly all over the world with more than 176 000 people being infected by the year 1995.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), unlike other viruses cannot be ‘caught’ through casual contact, such as touching a sufferer, using the same cutlery or even kissing – provided there are no cuts or sores on the mouth. This virus is unable to survive outside the human body, and will also be destroyed by soaps and detergents. HIV, is not as many may well have been led to believe, confined to homosexual (Gay) men – it can easily be spread by unprotected sexual contact with any infected person, through the shared usage of needles and syringes, infected blood transfusions and passed on from mother to child during birth. It is one of the most serious health problems in the world today, and regardless of our age, social standing, race or background, everyone should gain a better understanding of the disease, as it is not confined only to those in ‘high-risk-groups’.
What causes AIDS?
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a relatively new disease, with the cause not yet being fully understood. In the early 80’s, Dr Luc Montagnier, head of a team of researchers at the Pasteur Institute in Paris first announced the discovery of a new virus. They called this virus ‘LAV’ or lymphadenopathy associated virus, while Robert Gallo, head of the American team, coined the name HTLV-3 or human T-cell lymphotropic virus type-3. To simplify matters, scientists have now agreed to use the term HIV or as it is often referred to, ‘the AIDS virus’.
This virus, like others is one of a group of minute micro-organisms, where survival is only possible inside cells of living creatures. The AIDS virus preys on the body’s immune system, until it is unable to resist viral infections, thus resulting in a number of debilitating illnesses. The most common of these being, pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) – a rare form of pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) – a form of skin cancer. During the ‘attack’, a certain group of white blood cells are destroyed.
These white blood cells, referred to as the T-cells or helper cells, play a vital role in killing virus infected tissues. Rapid multiplication and signalling to other parts of the immune system that an infection has occurred, is their main responsibility and an essential one to say the least. As a result of this indication, other parts of the immune system then produce antibodies – chemical substances that destroy harmful bacteria and counteract the poisons produced by disease germs.
Apart from activating the body’s defense systems, T-cells also inform another group of white blood cells, known as T8 or suppressor cells, when it is time to end the invasion. Under normal circumstances, the body contains more T-helper cells than it does, T-suppressor cells. In the case of AIDS however, this ratio is reversed, with the ‘suppressor’ cells now outnumbering the ‘helper’ cells, thus preventing the helper cells from performing their task. Once HIV has invaded the T-helper cells, it then proceeds, by multiplying, producing more viruses that then invade the nearby remaining T-helper cells, which is repeated again and again.
Many of the symptoms of AIDS are similar to those that occur in many common illnesses, such as influenza and bronchitis, however are usually far more severe and lasting for a longer period.
AIDS develops in three stages, taking anywhere from three months to ten years to reach ‘full maturity’.
- prolonged fatigue, with no obvious cause
- sudden unexplained weight loss
- persistent fever and night sweats
- constant diarrhea
- swollen glands, especially in the armpits and neck
- persistent thrush, causing a thick, irritating, white discharge from the vagina and white spots on the end of the penis or a discharge from the rectum.
- dry, troublesome cough and shortness of breath
- reddish raised or flat blotches on or under the skin
Some people diagnosed as being HIV positive may remain without any symptoms for many years – adopting a peaceful co-existence with the virus. This ‘less severe’ form of the virus is known as Aids Related Complex (ARC), and it has yet to be established exactly how many infected people will develop this opposed to AIDS.
Much of the fear and panic surrounding AIDS is often due to a lack of understanding of how HIV is transmitted from one person to another. Many still believe that it is possible to ‘catch’ the disease through ordinary social contact with carriers of the virus. This remains untrue, as AIDS is not infectious in the same way as ‘flu’ would be, and one wouldn’t be placing yourself at any risk by being near, eating, drinking, swimming, or even sharing the same towel or clothing with that person. Outside of the body, HIV is very fragile, therefore it is impossible for it to be spread through the air or social contact with an AIDS sufferer. We should also not be led to believe that AIDS is confined to gay men or infected sexual partners. Like some other venereal diseases, it can also be transmitted through blood transfusions and the sharing of needles amongst drug addicts.
- Sexual Transmission (vaginal and anal sex)
The virus is passed from one person to another in the semen or vaginal fluid during vaginal or anal sex. It is easier for the virus to pass into your body if you have sores and other sexually transmitted diseases on your penis or vagina. The virus can also enter the body very easily through anal sex.
Heterosexual transmission of HIV is possible, and is probably responsible for most cases of AIDS worldwide. This is not to say that being monogamous, offers 100% protection, as if your partner is infected, and you engage in sexual acts, transmission of the virus is possible.
The more people you or your partner have sex with, the more likely it is that at least one of them will be carriers of the AIDS virus. This being especially true if one of your or your partners, sexual partners fall into the high-risk category. Having mentioned this, it would be wise to state that, reducing the number of sexual partners one has will not significantly lessen the risks of acquiring HIV, if you don’t also practice safe sex!
- Drug addicts
It is not the fact of being a drug addict or even the practice of injecting drugs into the body that places you at risk, but more the practice of injecting drugs with dirty, ‘used’ needles, syringes and other equipment used in the preparation of an injection. All syringes, needles, blades and scissors should be thoroughly soaked and cleaned using a mixture of bleach (Jik) and water – 2 cups of water mixed with one cup of bleach.
One way to avoid these risks is to stop using drugs. This in many cases is often far easier said than done. Strong addiction can be broken, however the first step to recovery has to come from within – without a strong desire to succeed, no other force will prove effective.If stopping your habit is a choice you don’t feel capable of making, then you should stop sharing needles, even if you succumb to this ‘ritual’ only occasionally. It is important to remember that many HIV-positive people do not display any symptoms, so someone who appears to be healthy on the outside may always be ‘dying’ on the inside! Apart from public education campaigns, which promote guidelines for both safer sex and drug usage, counselling and advisory services are also available.
- Homosexual males:
Again it is not homosexuality itself that puts a person at risk, and it’s not to say that every homosexual man is a carrier of the deadly AIDS virus. HIV is more confined to those homosexuals who have sex with a number of partners – the more promiscuous they are, the more they run the risk of catching and transmitting the virus.
Haemophilia is an inherited disorder in which the blood clots very slowly, resulting in prolonged bleeding from wounds or injury. Most haemophiliacs need to receive regular injections of a blood clotting factor to prevent uncontrollable bleeding. However, to obtain enough clotting factor for one injection, a large amount of donated blood has to be used, and before scientists came to the conclusion that HIV could be passed on through blood this posed a major problem. Nowadays, all blood is screened and treated, almost banishing haemophiliacs from the high-risk group.
- Babies born to AIDS infected mothers:
Pregnant women who are carriers of the disease, sadly, do often pass the virus onto their babies, either before, during or shortly after the birth. HIV-positive women who become pregnant also run a higher risk of developing full-blown AIDS. Women also need to be aware of one other possible risk of infection to their babies – breast milk. Because of these possible risks to both mother and baby, it is important that one enlist the services of a counselor, who would have an understanding of what she is going through.
Many drug addicts use prostitution as a means of getting drugs or money to buy drugs. These women often operate on their own, with their clientele being somewhat on a lower status level to say those, visiting an escort agency. This places the women at a greater risk, as it is not only the possible injecting of drugs with dirty needles, but also the sexual intercourse with someone who would probably fall into the high-risk category.
Many scientists believe that the virus is less easily transmitted from a woman to a man, than the other way around. Such claims are probably based on the fact that the virus is present in the vaginal and cervical fluids of an infected woman, but the actual manner in which the virus passes into a woman’s bloodstream, is not known. It is thought that the virus may enter through erosions of the cervix, or through any vaginal cuts or sores that may be present at the time of intercourse. For this reason, HIV is more easily acquired by women who have herpes or gonorrhea.
Food Preparation Tips for HIV positive People
Food safety and preparation is extremely important for people living with HIV. HIV results in decreased immune function, and people with this virus are more likely to become sick from foods harboring germs. These foods may be ones that are incorrectly stored or prepared – especially sources such as fish, poultry, meat and eggs, and all foods containing these. Once sick, the person will take a longer time to recover, however the good news is that this risk can easily be reduced.
- Never eat raw fish, or shellfish (i.e.., oysters, clams, and mussels).
- Avoid meats that are undercooked. Beef and lamb must be cooked until they are at least “medium,” that is, between barely pink and brown on the inside.
- Chicken, pork, and fish should all be cooked well.
- Stuff poultry just before cooking, or cook the stuffing separately.
- Use two cutting boards to avoid cross contamination. Mark one for cooked food and the other for uncooked food.
- Wash hands, utensils, and cutting boards in hot, soapy water before using and after touching raw meat or poultry.
- If the microwave is used, a rotating turntable will make sure food is evenly cooked and heated throughout.
- When eating at a restaurant, make sure the foods are either very hot or very cold – avoid salads that have been stored at room temperature.
Eggs and dairy products
- Avoid raw and runny eggs. Eggs must be cooked thoroughly to prevent salmonella poisoning.
- Do not add raw egg to milkshakes and avoid egg-nogs, hollandaise sauce, homemade ice cream and Caesar salad.
- Check for cracks to the eggshell before purchasing, and throw away all those that have cracks in them.
- Stay away from soft-ripened cheese (i.e.., brie and Camembert).
- Use only pasteurized milk and milk products.
Fruits and vegetables
- Use a vegetable brush to wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly. (Soaking lettuce in ice-cold salty water will help remove unwanted dirt)
- Throw away any mouldy fruits and vegetables.
- Check the “sell by” date, and do not purchase or use food past this date.
- Thaw frozen food in the refrigerator or in a microwave, not on the kitchen counter. Room temperature allows bacteria to grow rapidly.
- Refrigerate or freeze food as soon as it is brought home from the grocery or immediately after use.
- Divide leftover food into shallow containers for quick cooling in the refrigerator.
- Leftovers should not be kept for more than 2 days.
- Thawed food must be cooked before re-freezing.
- Remember, food-borne illness can be reduced. So when in doubt, throw it out!
Caused by a bacterium , this sexually transmitted disease often has no primary symptoms, however when they do arise it is usually in the form of excessive vaginal discharge, itchiness and tenderness of the vagina and severe abdominal pain. Men usually experience a burning sensation upon urinating and /or an abnormal discharge from the penis.
Chlamydia is three to five times more common than gonorrhoea and is more frequently detected in women than in men – it is probably the most prevalent sexually transmitted disease, with rates the highest among teenage girls.
The major problem concerning Chlamydia Trachomatis is that it produces no immediate symptoms, often going unnoticed and resulting in serious problems such as infertility, miscarriage and premature labour. These babies are often born with conditions such as those of pneumonia and eye infections.
Another complication to consider is that of Pelvic inflammatory disease which often results in partial or complete blockage of the fallopian tubes, rendering the woman either sterile or in some cases susceptible to ectopic pregnancies.
Diagnosis and Treatment:
To obtain a correct diagnosis it would be necessary to take a sample of the infected discharge (both partners) and / or a blood test. Once a diagnosis has been made, treatment with antibiotics (tetracycline and doxycycline) is vital, as is a follow-up appointment to ensure that the disease has been cured so preventing further infection.
Caused by the bacterium, Neisseria gonorrhoea, Gonorrhoea is one of the most common of sexually transmitted diseases, and while there is no common symptom – other than excessive vaginal discharge, this disease is often only diagnosed after it has already spread to the uterus and fallopian tubes, where if left untreated will proceed to the heart, resulting in damage to the valves, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), tubal scarring, ectopic pregnancy and infertility. The gonococcal organism can also be passed to a newborn during birth, resulting in severe eye infections that can lead to blindness. To prevent this from happening, newborns are usually given an antibiotic or eye-drops containing silver nitrate.
The symptoms usually only follow a week after infection, where in men, gonorrhoea results in a burning sensation on passing urine, with a possible discharge of pus from the penis. Later symptoms in the woman would include, abdominal pain and fever, and there is a risk of inflammation of the urethra (secondary urethritis).
Symptoms: (usually occurring about one week after exposure)
- vaginal discharge
- lower abdominal pain
- frequent urination accompanied with pain
- increased or painful menstrual periods
- sore throat (from oral sex)
- thick, yellowish discharge from the penis
- frequent urination accompanied with pain
- sore throat (from oral sex)
Diagnosis and Treatment:
Samples from the cervix are usually the surest way of obtaining a diagnosis, where thereafter, the appropriate antibiotic treatment may be administered for total recovery. Some strains have become resistant to penicillin and tetracycline, in which case other antibiotics are recommended, such as ciprofloxacin or ceftriaxone.
It is vital that one inform current and past sexual partners, who may have been infected without realising it.
Syphilis, a venereal disease, caused by the micro-organism Treponema pallidum is most often transmitted through sexual contact, however it can also be passed from a mother to her unborn baby. During the primary stage of this disease, a painless ulcer develops at the site of ‘germ-entrance’ – usually somewhere on the genitals, woman’s cervix or in the mouth of either sex. This ulcer generally heals with time, but the sufferer then goes on to develop secondary syphilis, which produces generalised symptoms such as, headaches, sore throat, high temperatures, rashes and mouth ulcers. The disease is at it’s most infectious during this stage.
If left untreated, the primary symptoms will eventually subside however the disease then remains dormant inside the body for as long as 4-20 years, often resulting in serious problems of the brain, skin and heart, and many developing blindness.
In the case of congenital syphilis, where the baby contracted the disease whilst still in the uterus, the outcome is often disastrous, with many such babies either being born dead, deaf, blind or otherwise severely handicapped.
When diagnosed early, syphilis responds well to treatment, which is usually in the form of an injection of long-acting penicillin. In the case of the pregnant mother, early treatment may well prevent infection of her unborn baby.
The virus that causes genital herpes is very closely related to the one that is responsible for cold sores or fever blisters, also known as herpes simplex type 2. Herpes simplex type 2 is transmitted sexually resulting in genital herpes in both men and women. This type can also affect the non-genital areas of a newborn baby, in those whose mother’s suffer from the condition at the time of giving birth.
The virus which causes herpes lives in nerve cells at the base of the spine, where it can lie dormant for the rest of one’s life, as it does in about 10 percent of all cases, or it can reappear sporadically, and every so often “creeps” to the surface to cause sores and blisters. Most people with herpes infection – probably as many as three-quarters – remain unaware of their infection because of the absence of sores to alert them to the infection People in this group, who are unaware that they are indeed infectious can unwittingly spread the disease. But even those who are aware of their infection can unknowingly spread the infection, as viral particles are ‘shed’, meaning they are present on the skin of the genitals, even when no sore or blister is present. Because of this ease of transmission, the virus has become extremely common.
Herpes virus infections occur in up to 20-50 percent of HIV+ people at some point during the course of HIV infection.
The incubation period, or length of time from ‘catching’ the disease to the onset of symptoms is short – between 2 – 12 days. The fist attack usually consists of blisters on and around the genitals, anus and/or cervix. The infected area feels itchy with a prickly sensation which is commonly known as “prodromal symptoms.” Thereafter the formation of blisters, which eventually burst, leaving ulcers.
These will generally heal within 3 weeks, but the sufferer may feel feverish and unwell during the attack. The first ‘outbreak’ is always the most severe, often lasting for three weeks or longer. Recurrent episodes, during which the virus is reactivated, are milder and usually last for about 5-7 days. For many, the recurrences will occur less frequently over time. Many external factors can trigger recurrence of symptoms, these may include:
- Skin Irritation (i.e. sunburn)
- Hormonal imbalance
- Dietary imbalance
- Vigorous sexual intercourse
Herpes is most contagious when the sores are visible, but transmission is still possible (although less likely) after the sores have healed. Symptoms can be considerably more severe and longer-lasting in people with HIV.
One complication, however rare, is that of accidentally spreading the infection to the eye/s. This can occur if you happen to rub your eyes, or insert your contact lenses after having touched a sore or blister. The herpes virus is easily killed with ordinary soap, therefore secondary infection of this nature can be easily avoided, through following strict hygiene measures during outbreaks.
The most serious known complication of herpes threatens infants born to herpes-infected mothers. These babies risk blindness, brain damage, and possibly even death. Fortunately, the risk of transmitting the infection to a newborn during birth is low, and whilst most HSV-infected women have normal, vaginal deliveries, and active sore at the time of delivery may warrant a caesarean delivery. Herpes simplex virus also increases the risk of miscarriage or premature labour.
It is important to see your doctor as soon as symptoms appear, or are still present, because diagnosis is made through viewing the sores, and possibly taking a sample for further microscopic investigation.
Unfortunately there is no ‘cure-all’ for this disease, and while ointments and tablets will provide relief from some of the more bothersome of symptoms, the disease will remain dormant in the body until reactivated. Starting treatment for an outbreak of herpes within the first 6 days is usually most effective.
Acyclovir treatments are the most commonly prescribed drugs for the initial outbreak, where duration of symptoms can be reduced from nine days to about five, and healing from three weeks to two. Topical creams of this nature, are also effective, however more so in initial outbreaks, as they rarely work well in cases of recurrent infection.
Vitamin C, zinc, and lysine have been known to hasten the body’s healing process which will ultimately reduce the duration of the pain and discomfort.
Small doses of acyclovir may prevent reactivation of previous infections, however, casual use can breed herpes viruses that are particularly resistant to drugs of this nature. Therefore it is advisable to ask your doctor whether this method of prevention is necessary in your case.
- Aloe Vera extract is said to promote the healing of sores.
- Vitamins C and E and zinc are though to boost the immune system’s response to the herpes virus.
- Practicing stress reduction techniques such as meditation or yoga.
It is important that you tell all sex partners from the prior three weeks of your infection, and those that may be new on the scene. Herpes simplex type 1 (responsible for the common cold sore), and herpes simplex type 2 can easily migrate through the body, therefore oral sex should be avoided when there is an active sore on the mouth or genitals.
There are products and activities that may worsen your condition, and should therefore be avoided:
- Nonoxynol-9 (Spermicide).
- Ointments and treatments containing cortisone or antibiotics of any nature.
- Ultraviolet light (including sunlight and tanning beds).
- Idoxuridine (applied to sores).