Sexually transmitted infections (information for travellers) 
 

Causes

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be caused by over 30 different types of bacteria, viruses, and parasites.

Risks for travellers

STIs are present worldwide. The risk of getting an STI depends more on individual behaviours while travelling than the region or country visited.

Risk is higher among travellers who engage in:

  • sex without a condom
  • sex with a new partner or stranger

In some areas, STIs have developed high levels of antibiotic resistance making them more difficult to treat.

Some STIs, such as Haemophilus ducreyi (chanroid), are not common in Canada, but are common in other parts of the world.

For more information on STIs worldwide, see the STI fact sheet from the World Health Organization.

How STIs are spread

  • STIs are spread from person to person through:
    • contact with semen, vaginal fluid, blood or other body fluids during vaginal, anal or oral sex without a condom
    • skin-to-skin contact during sexual activity
  • Some STIs can also be passed from person-to-person through blood transfusions and organ transplants. In some countries, the blood or organ supply might not be adequately screened, which increases the risk of virus transmission.
  • Hepatitis Bhepatitis C and HIV, can also be transmitted by sharing needles and other drug consumption equipment or using contaminated equipment for tattoos or piercings or surgical/dental procedures.
  • Some STIs, such as HIV, syphilisherpes and gonorrhea, can be transmitted from an infected mother to her child through pregnancy and childbirth. HIV can also be transmitted through breastfeeding.
  • An individual can have more than one STI at a time. In fact, you are at higher risk of HIV infection if you already have another STI for example, due to open sores on your skin caused by herpes or syphilis.
  • If you have been successfully treated for an STI, like chlamydia, gonorrhea or syphilis, you can still get re-infected, if you are exposed again.

Symptoms and signs

Many people with STIs have symptoms; however sometimes symptoms are mild or unnoticeable. If you have been sexually active with a new partner or stranger when travelling, be aware of any changes in your health during travel and after you return, such as:

  • different or heavier discharge from the vagina
  • discharge from the penis
  • burning feeling when urinating
  • sores, particularly in the genital or anal areas
  • itching feeling around the genitals or anus
  • appearance of a rash
  • swollen glands in the groin
  • sudden onset of flu-like symptoms
  • yellowing of the skin and eyes (jaundice)

These symptoms might appear alone or in combination. Refer to information on specific STIs for more details.

Complications from untreated STIs can have serious effects on your health, such as pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, pregnancy complications, cancer (of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus or penis), chronic liver disease, and/or birth defects in children.

Treatment

Management and treatment vary depending on the STI. It is important to seek medical attention for a diagnosis and then discuss treatment options with a health care professional.

Some STIs, particularly gonorrhea, are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, reducing available treatment options. There have been cases of gonorrhea acquired during travel, that are resistant to multiple antibiotics. Prevention, testing and treatment are important ways to help prevent long-term health effects and reduce the spread of STIs.

Prevention for travellers

Consult a health care professional or visit a travel health clinic preferably 6 weeks before you travel.

The most effective way to avoid becoming infected with or transmitting an STI while travelling is to avoid sexual activity or activities with a new partner or stranger where body fluids are exchanged. You can reduce your risk of STIs by following the recommendations below.

Practice safer sex

  • Use condoms consistently and correctly every time you have sex.
  • Use dental dams (rectangular pieces of thin latex) over the vagina or anus for a protective barrier during oral sex.
  • Before travelling, pack your own supply of condoms and dental dams. Be aware that these products may be unavailable or of poor quality in your destination country.
  • Other birth control methods do NOT protect you against HIV and other STIs.

Get vaccinated against

Avoid behaviour that increases your risk of STIs, such as

  • sex (anal, oral, vaginal) without a condom
  • sexual activity with a new partner or stranger
  • drinking or drug use, which can lower your sexual inhibitions or alter your ability to make decisions
  • sharing drug consumption equipment such as needles and syringes
  • sharing personal care items such as razors, toothbrushes or shavers
  • exposure to unsterilized needles for tattooing, body-piercing or acupuncture

Avoid injections, blood transfusions and organ transplantations unless it is an emergency

  • If you must receive blood or undergo an organ transplant while travelling, make sure that the donated blood or organ has been tested for HIV and other infections transmitted through blood.
  • If you cannot ensure the blood or organ has been screened, and you do not require emergency care, return home for treatment.

Be aware of sexual assault

  • Sexual assault can happen anywhere in the world.
  • If you are raped or assaulted while travelling abroad, report the assault immediately to the nearest Canadian government office abroad or contact Global Affairs Canada's Emergency Watch and Response Centre. Consular officials may be able to guide you through the process.
  • See a doctor immediately so that HIV and STI testing (and possible treatment), as well as counselling, can be provided as soon as possible, as appropriate.

Get tested and monitor your health

  • See a health care professional if:
    • you think you may have an STI.
    • you have engaged in activities that may have increased your risk of acquiring an STI, even if you have no symptoms.
  • If you are concerned that you may have been exposed to HIV, see a health care professional immediately for testing and treatment, as appropriate.
  • Give your travel history to the health care professional if you suspect an STI.
  • It is important to ensure that your sex partner(s) get tested and treated if you are diagnosed with an STI.
  • Do not have sex if you think you have an STI.
  • Be aware that some medical services overseas may not meet Canadian standards. Canadian consular services include limited medical assistance abroad, such as providing the names of local health care professionals or contacting your family in Canada. Contact the Emergency Operations Centre or the local Canadian Embassy, Consulate, or High Commission if you require assistance.
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