Sex. There, I said it, and I’ll say it again. Sex. Stop giggling at the back. Sex and round the world travel is pretty much inevitable and most backpackers and travellers will at some point hook up. That is why it is essential to make sure that you take care of your sexual health when you are travelling.
Sex is still a little bit of a taboo subject to talk openly about but it really shouldn’t be. Sex is awesome, we all love it, we all want it, we all do it as often as we can and and there is no point denying that fact. The problem is the stigma around sex and sexual health often leads to a lot of sexually transmitted infections going unseen, undiagnosed and untreated. It’s just really important we have an open an honest discussion around sexual health.
Let’s Talk About Sex.
At some point on your gap year or extended round the world trip, odds are you will meet someone you want to sneak off somewhere private for some alone time with. Months spent travelling from one exotic destination to another, that intoxicating feeling of freedom, meeting a whole host of sexy locals and other gorgeous backpackers alike, (because lets face it most backpackers are sexy as hell just by the fact they are awesome world travellers), add all that to a little too much alcohol, people letting their hair and their guards down and it all too often means one thing leads to another. Ugly’s will get bumped, biscuits will get battered and the dirty deed will be done. It happens.
Basically there are times when backpacking can be one extended night stand after another, and there are other times where backpackers meet their soul mates on the road and spend night after night with each other. Isn’t love awesome? Until they go their seperate ways a week later and meet the next person.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this of course, provided that you do it somewhere private and not in the top bunk of the hostel dorm you are sharing with a dozen other people! No one wants to wake up to the sight of a pasty white backside moving up and down! In most circumstances you are all adults and are free to enjoy your personal time how you choose with whoever you choose. Go forth, enjoy yourselves! Have fun!
But it is really important, and I cannot stress the really enough in the really important part of this, that you look after your sexual health. If you think there is a chance you might have sex on your travels then just make sure your health comes before you do.
Protecting Yourself From Sexually Transmitted Infections.
Get screened regularly.
If you know you will be having sex regularly – or at the very least you will be trying to have sex regularly – then you should get screened regularly too.
STI’s are on the rise in travellers returning home year after year. So before you set off just make sure you have a full check up at your GP or local GUM clinic, and then get checked again when you return. If you are travelling for a long period, say on a full gap year or more, it may be worth scheduling an appointment at a major city with good facilities during your trip too.
Use a condom!
This really should go without saying now but people still don’t listen. I really don’t care how drunk, how horny or how forgetful you are, ‘just this once’ is not acceptable. There really is no excuse. And no, the pull out procedure never works and is not acceptable either.
So just use a condom. It is your first and best defence not just against pregnancy, but from STI’s too.
Basic things to remember about condoms when abroad.
- Condoms can be damaged by heat, humidity or oil based products such as sunscreen.
- Take condoms you have bought at home with you, not every country uses the same CE mark of quality and safety standards required by law in Europe, you should see this on the packet if they do.
This is an extremely popular form of contraception but does not protect you from STI’s, so you still need to use a condom as well. Consider it a double shield.
Normally the pill does work very well to protect against unwanted pregnancy, but nothing is 100% effective and there are things that can affect it’s effectiveness when travelling too. If you get ill and have had a bout of severe diarrhoea and vomiting within 3 -4 hours of taking it, this may affect how well the pill has been absorbed into your body, and some antibiotics may affect the pill’s effectiveness, Doxycycline (a common antimalarial medication) can have the same effect. The best thing to do is to continue taking the pill, especially if this is the norm for you, but don’t rely on it 100% and use a condom as well.
Injectable contraceptives and the IUD.
These are very effective contraceptives, but just like the pill provide no cover for STI’s, so use a condom as well. Injectable contraceptives do reduce menstruation in some women, and some may see this as an added benefit.
Morning after pill.
You can’t rely on this at all when backpacking. You may be able to get it from a clinic or medical centre in some countries, and I really do strongly emphasise may, but not everywhere will have them, and that is assuming you are within easy reach of a clinic or medical centre at all. You may be able to get some before you go, but unless there is a damn good clinical reason for it good luck trying to convince your GP or nurse practitioner you need them in advance. Odds are you will just get a lecture on safe sex and handed a load of condoms.
Types of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).
This is a nasty disease that is passed via unprotected sex. It can be symptomless for years – especially in women – and you can pass it from partner to partner without even realising you have it, and it can cause pain when passing urine and scrotal tenderness in men and lead to infertility in women as it can block the fallopian tubes.
The only treatment is antibiotics. You will need to get screened, tested and head to a clinic to get the right medication prescribed (that box of broad spectrum antibiotics you stuffed in your first aid pack just in case won’t cut it).
Gonnorhoea is passed through any form of unprotected sex, vaginal, oral or anal. The symptoms are generally pain when passing urine and a creamy coloured discharge, if left untreated it can lead to severe abdominal pains and even infertility.
The only treatment is antibiotics. You will need to get screened, tested and head to a clinic. You will also need to tell any of your previous partners that they may be infected too.
This is a really common virus that leads to painful blisters on the genitals. It is considered a long term condition because it can lie dormant in your body and reactivate a number of times. It can be passed through any form of unprotected sex and is highly contagious, especially given that quite often many people aren’t even aware they have it because it can be symptomless for a long time.
There is no real cure as such for genital herpes. The virus will clear eventually on its own, but you will need to take a course of antiviral tablets to suppress the infection and ease the symptoms, and you must use a condom to stop the spread of it if you continue to be sexually active.
Hepatitis B is a liver infection that if left untreated can cause serious long term health problems. It is not strictly just an STI as it can be passed by the sharing of any bodily fluids, including sharing needles or toothbrushes, but unprotected sex is a high risk too. Symptoms are usually vague, nausea, lack of appetite, joint pain, but can lead to serious liver problems and can even be fatal.
The best protection is getting vaccinated before you travel. Condoms alone are not enough.
Trichomoniasis is an STI passed through unprotected sex, and is often symptomless. If you do develop symptoms such as a tick, discoloured vaginal discharge, soreness or swelling in women, or pain during urination or ejaculation and swelling around the head or foreskin of the penis in men, then these can take up to a month to appear.
The only treatment is antibiotics. You will need to be screened and tested at a clinic. You should also tell previous partners that you have it too.
This is an STI caused mainly by unprotected sex, and not like many believe through poor hygiene. It causes an increase of discharge through the vagina and is not usually serious. It can coincide with other infections too.
The only treatment is antibiotics and all vaginal soaps and disinfectants designed to increase flora should be avoided as they are not really effective.
This is a particularly lovely infection caused by having sex or being intimate with someone who is infected with the crab louse, and yes this does include just that little naked cuddle too. Full sex isn’t necessary and condoms are not a barrier. They are horrible little creatures that latch on to the pubic hair and cause a lot of irritation, inflammation, redness, and scratching.
You will need to get an insecticidal lotion or cream that you can get either on prescription or from a pharmacist, and everyone you have been in intimate or close contact with should be treated too.
Syphillis is a bacterial infection that can cause highly infectious sores around your genitals or mouth and is caused by skin to skin contact with an infected sore, usually through having unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex. Sometimes a rash can occur, particularly on the hands or feet, and if left untreated can lead to serious long term problems. Condoms are not 100% effective but they can significantly reduce your risk.
Like many STI’s it will not go away on its own and will need to be treated with an injection or course of antibiotics.
The big one. This is most commonly passed through unprotected sex, although there are other ways of catching it too such as sharing needles. The HIV virus basically attacks and weakens the immune system to the extent that it cannot fight off any infection.
There is no cure for HIV, and although the treatments to allow people to live long and healthy lives with the virus are now very effective, this fact alone should make you always wear a condom.
What to do if you suspect you have a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
If you are worried you may have an STI, the most important thing is to get checked by a medical professional as soon as is possible. If you are still travelling, remember that the standards of services may vary wildly depending on where you are. Very rural parts of India or Africa for example will not have the same world class facilities as Singapore or Europe or other developed nations.
Remember also to check your travel insurance, as it may or may not cover you for STI’s, HIV or pregnancy treatment.
If you have arrived home, then it is important that you get a check up at your local GUM clinic, and be honest with the staff about your travels and sexual history. Clinical staff are not there to judge you and we really don’t, the truth is we don’t really care what you have been up to and we will probably never see you again anyway, but it does allow us to give you the appropriate tests and treatment.
Have you read all the information but still need a little more specific advice? Is there a travel health issue that you are worried about and need a little reassurance on? Need some information on malaria, or which vaccinations you will need? Is there a travel health issue you would like to ask about in complete confidence?
Well I am here to help.
Apart from being an experienced backpacker with over 20 years travel experience, I am also a qualified nurse who specialises in emergency nursing and travel medicine.
The Bemused Backpacker Travel Clinic is an indispensable online resource for you to gain a one on one consultation with a medical professional giving you personal reassurance, expert information and qualified advice for any and all of your travel health related questions. To head into the Travel Clinic, click here