Protection against sexually transmitted infections when traveling

Traveling does not eliminate the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Nearly one in five travelers would have occasional sex during their travels and one in two would be unprotected!

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be contracted anywhere in the world. They can be caused by a bacterium, a virus or a parasite and transmitted from one person to another during sexual intercourse by:

·      skin-to-skin contact;

·      the blood;

·      sperm, vaginal secretions or other body fluids.

Some infections may also be transmitted through blood transfusions, organ transplants, sharing of needles or syringes for injecting drug use, pregnancy and breastfeeding (mother to child).

Who are the most at risk travelers?

The risk of contracting an STI is not higher from one country to another. However, the risk increases for travelers who engage in risky behaviors such as unprotected sex with a stranger, or with a sex worker. According to one study, the risk of contracting an STI while traveling is higher in:

·       men;

·       travelers visiting friends or family;

·       travelers traveling for less than 30 days;

·       travelers who did not consult a travel health professional prior to departure.

What are the possible consequences of an STI?

STIs can lead to serious problems such as infertility, pregnancy complications (including baby malformations), liver problems, certain types of cancer, etc.  Some sexually transmitted infections can be treated and cured. However, some can last a lifetime.

How do I know if I have an STI while traveling?

If you have had unprotected sex with a new partner during your trip, look for the following symptoms:

·       Abundant vaginal discharge or different than usual

·       Penis discharge

·       Burning sensation when urinating

·       Wounds and / or itching in the anal or genital area

·       Swelling glands at the groin areas

·       Appearance of a rash

·       Sudden onset of symptoms that resemble flu symptoms

Note that many STIs can be asymptomatic! Consult a doctor if you have had risky unprotected sexual intercourse.

When should I see a doctor?

See a doctor immediately if:

·       you have some symptoms of STIs

·       you have had risky sexual behavior (even if you have no symptoms)

·       you have been sexually assaulted

You will then be screened for appropriate advice, or even treatment if necessary.

How can I protect myself against STIs?

·       Consult a travel health professional, ideally 6 weeks before your departure. Learn about vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis A and hepatitis B. According to one study, fewer STIs diagnosis were made in travelers who had a travel health consultation prior to departure.

·       Use a latex or polyurethane condom (male or female) during sexual intercourse and use a dental dam (a piece of latex that can be placed on the vagina or anus for protection) during oral sex. Note that other methods of contraception, including natural or animal membrane condoms, will not protect you against STIs.

·       Bring your own supply of condoms and dental dams while traveling.

·       Avoid risky behaviors: unprotected sex, sex with a stranger or sex worker, excessive alcohol consumption or drug use that may impair your judgment, exposure to unsterilized needles (tattooing, piercing, acupuncture).

·       Also avoid sharing needles, syringes, razors or toothbrushes.

·       If you need to receive a blood transfusion or organ transplant while traveling, make sure that the blood or organ you receive has been tested for STIs. If this is not possible and you do not require emergency care, it is best to wait until you come home before undergoing the procedure.

For more information on STIs, please visit the Government of Quebec website: http://itss.gouv.qc.ca/mts-its-itss.dhtml.

Have fun safely!                    

REFERENCES

·       https://www.inspq.qc.ca/espace-itss/acquisition-d-its-en-voyage

·       https://voyage.gc.ca/voyager/sante-securite/maladies/its

·       https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/eppp-archive/100/201/300/cdn_medical_association/cmaj/vol-152/issue-11/1831f.htm#prevention


Louise Tommasini