With festivities in full swing, an important message for revellers this party season is to keep safe from STIs - and avoid what could be an unpleasant start to 2014.
For many, Christmas is undoubtedly a time to have fun and let their hair down. Couple that with a plentiful flow of alcohol, festive cheer and reduced inhibitions, and you can easily find yourself saying or doing things that are perhaps out of the norm.
'Mad Friday' brought with it reports of drunken antics across the country, as people celebrated with vigour our last weekend before Christmas. Emergency services were said to have seen a 20 per cent increase in drink related incidents compared to a normal Friday night and pictures swamped the internet of people having fights, being sick and falling over. But a danger that's less overt is for those who had unprotected sex and put themselves at risk of a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
STIs can be like a silent assassin. Their symptoms aren't always obvious and can easily go unnoticed. As with many health conditions, the longer an STI goes untreated, the more severe the impact it can have.
Chlamydia is a prime example of this. Symptoms can often be vague or mistaken for something else, yet it can have significant health implications and could even lead to infertility in women.
According to official figures from Public Health England, chlamydia is still the most commonly diagnosed STI, with more than 200,000 cases recorded last year in genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics and other community-based settings. There have also been high levels of gonorrhea, genital warts and herpes. In total, nearly half a million STIs were diagnosed in England alone during 2012, with the highest prevalence in the under 25s age group.
Although the most feared STI is often HIV, many are unaware of the serious consequences others can have too. The human papilloma virus (HPV) for instance - a virus that can cause genital warts - is very common, yet can also be associated with the development of cervical cancer. So much so that teenage girls are now being offered immunisation to HPV by the NHS.
What to do
If you think you could have contracted an STI, then it's important to get yourself checked out and avoid passing it on to others. Once diagnosed, most STIs are easily treated with a course of antibiotics or creams.
Unfortunately, embarrassment often puts people off seeking help, particularly when they have no obvious symptoms. In a national survey, commissioned by Pharmacy2U, 55 per cent of people said they would be embarrassed to talk to someone about sexual health. We find our online doctor service is popular with people who want to consult a GP about STI tests and treatment, without speaking to someone face-to-face.
Limit the risk
For some, the risk of pregnancy is the biggest fear of unprotected sex, so they feel reassured if the contraceptive pill is being taken - leaving many open to the risks of STIs.
Using a condom is a good way to limit your chances of catching something, but remember they're not a 100 per cent guarantee of safety and won't necessarily protect you from conditions that are passed on by bodily contact, like genital warts and pubic lice.
Of course it's not just those in casual relationships that fall foul to STIs and it's advisable to get a sexual health check when starting a new relationship, particularly if you're planning sex without condoms.
STI New Year
Like me, health professionals across the country are now gearing-up for a busy month for STI treatment in January. So as the nation prepares for its New Year celebrations, it's worth making sure you won't welcome in 2014 with an unwanted 'gift' from your partner and don't wake up to an 'STI New Year'.