Dossier: Sexuality

Safer sex? Yes please!

On average, everyone contracts a sexually transmitted infection once in their lifetime. So it’s important to know how to avoid STIs, to recognise the symptoms and to respond quickly.

Text: Nicole Krättli; photo: iStock

The “Ohne Dings kein Bums” campaign, which can roughly be translated as “No glove, no love”, was a widespread safe sex campaign slogan in the 1990s. And the Federal Office of Public Health’s “Stop Aids” campaign had an impact. The topic of HIV was omnipresent, as was the fear of becoming infected with the disease. 

Today, HIV has lost some of its fear factor. Thanks to medical progress, people who contract HIV can usually live a largely normal life. For the first time since the start of the HIV epidemic at the beginning of the 1980s, the FOPH recorded fewer than 300 cases of HIV in 2020. By way of comparison, an average of 1,300 cases were being recorded a year in the 1990s.

Nevertheless, we must certainly never underestimate the risk of sexually transmitted infections. According to figures published by the World Health Organisation WHO, on average, everyone contracts an STI once in their lifetime. So it’s important to know what STIs are out there, how to avoid infection and what symptoms to look out for. 

HIV

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus and it can be transmitted through contact with sperm, vaginal fluid, the anus, blood and breast milk. HIV damages or destroys certain cells of the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off other infections. If HIV goes untreated, it can lead to AIDS. More than 37 million people worldwide are infected with HIV or have already developed AIDS. In Switzerland, the number is around 16,600.

To protect yourself against infection, it is important to follow the safer sex rules (see box) and don’t share syringes and hypodermic needles. Today, you can also protect yourself by taking medication.

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is the most common sexually transmitted infection in Switzerland. It is most common among young men and women under the age of 24 and can be transmitted by oral, vaginal and anal sex. Around 70% of women and roughly half of the men who have the disease have no or few symptoms. If they do, they usually occur two to six weeks after infection in the form of a burning sensation and pain while urinating and discharge from the vagina or urethra. Chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics or may heal spontaneously. However, if untreated, it can lead to infertility in both sexes. 

Condoms reduce the risk of catching chlamydia, but infection may still occur. Therefore, anyone who has multiple or frequently changing sexual partners should seek medical advice and check whether it is a good idea to get tested.

Gonorrhoea

Gonorrhoea is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases worldwide and can be transmitted through oral, vaginal and anal sex. Symptoms usually occur two to seven days after infection. Men may initially experience redness and swelling at the penis opening with pain during urination and a pus-like discharge. Women may also experience increased discharge and pain during urination. It can be treated with antibiotics.

Condoms greatly reduce, but don’t entirely eliminate, the transmission of STIs. Anyone who has multiple or frequently changing sexual partners should seek medical advice.

Syphilis

Syphilis is transmitted by bacteria through oral, vaginal and anal sex and can become chronic. It can take up to three months after infection for initial symptoms to show. Symptoms include red blotches, hardened, painless sores, called chancres, at the entry point of the pathogen, and swollen lymph nodes. The symptoms may disappear without treatment, but the disease and its transmissibility remain. If detected in good time, syphilis can be treated and cured with antibiotics. 

Condoms greatly reduce the risk, but don’t entirely eliminate it. That’s why it is important to recognise and treat the infection at an early stage. Anyone who has multiple or frequently changing sexual partners should seek medical advice.

Hepatitis

There are different types of hepatitis viruses. Hepatitis A is more likely to affect men who have sex with men. Symptoms include acute fever, feeling sick, jaundice, loss of appetite and nausea. It can take up to 50 days for symptoms to appear after infection. Hepatitis B is primarily transmitted through body fluids, such as semen or blood. Symptoms can be very non-specific, ranging from loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting to abdominal and joint pain, fever and a rash. Hepatitis C is primarily transmitted via blood-to-blood contact, but rarely through sexual contact. 

You can be vaccinated against Hepatitis A and B. To protect against Hepatitis C, you should avoid getting blood on mucous membranes during sex.