Sexual Health 101 – Viral STIs

Part 2: Viral STIs

Photo by David Cohen on Unsplash

As mentioned in my previous blog post (see Sexual Health 101 – Part 1), sexual health is a topic that many students have questions about, since it can be somewhat of a taboo topic. Knowing some of the basics about STIs, including how they are transmitted and how they are treated, is important to maintaining a happy and healthy sex life.

To start off: what is a Sexually Transmitted Infection?

A Sexually Transmitted Infection, otherwise known as an STI, is an infection that can be acquired from having sex. STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea can affect your sexual and reproductive organs, while others like HIV and syphilis can cause general body infections.

A viral STI is a sexually transmitted infection that is caused by a virus. Although they currently have no cure, their symptoms can be helped with treatment. Listed below are some of the most common viral STIs, including HPV, HIV, and Herpes. Although I don’t talk about it in this post, Hepatitis B is another viral STI that can also be transmitted through sexual means. See this link for more information regarding Hepatitis B, including info regarding the Hepatitis B vaccine (which is available at Student Health Service).

HPV (Human Papillomavirus)
  • What is it? HPV is a virus that can cause genital warts or lead to cancer. There are multiple types of HPV that can affect the body in different ways.
  • How do you get it? HPV can be acquired through unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal sex with a person who has the infection. You can also get HPV from skin to skin contact, even if your partner doesn’t have any visible warts.
  • What are the symptoms? A lot of people have HPV and don’t know they have it, since it’s often asymptomatic. Warts on the genitals, if present, may look like bumps which can be cauliflower-like. Some warts are very hard to see.
  • How do you get tested? A doctor or nurse can tell if you have genital warts by looking at them. Some types of HPV can also cause changes to a female’s cervix, which may lead to cervical cancer. To check your cervix, a doctor or nurse can do a PAP test, which involves taking cells from the cervix.
  • How is it treated? Currently there is no cure for HPV, but there are treatments for the symptoms (warts and cervix changes). If you want the warts taken off, a number of treatments can be performed: freezing/burning the warts, surgical removal, putting liquid directly on the wart. However, even if they are removed, there is a chance that they will return.
    • A NOTE ABOUT THE HPV VACCINE: if you are a female between 9-46 years old, you can protect yourself against some types of HPV with a vaccine, given by a needle in three doses. This can be done at Student Health Service on campus. However, this does not protect against all strains, and for this reason, it is important to regularly get PAP tests and use condoms for vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
  • What is it? Herpes is an infection caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). There are two types of HSV that are STIs: types 1 and 2. They can both cause painful sores around the mouth (cold sores; typically HSV 1), as well as sores on the genitals (genital herpes, typically HSV 2).
  • How do you get it? Herpes is acquired through skin-skin contact. For example:
    • Kissing someone with a cold sore
    • Receiving oral sex from someone with cold sores
    • Touching the sores
    • Condomless intercourse with someone with a genital herpes outbreak
    • NOTE: you can pass on the virus when you have visible sores on the mouth or genitals, but you can also pass it on without having any visible sores!
  • What are the symptoms? A lot of people with herpes will not have any symptoms, meaning you may not know you have it! If you do have symptoms, you’ll likely feel itching/tingling on your skin, which will then develop into painful blisters that turn into sores. These sores do heal by themselves, but will likely keep coming back. However, the first outbreak of herpes is usually the worst.
    • If you have a herpes outbreak: keep the area clean and wear loose fitting clothes/cotton underwear. After urinating, wash your genital area with cool water.
  • How do you get tested? A doctor or nurse will check your sores, which can be done at Student Health. Sometimes they might order a blood test to help with a diagnosis. However, this test is often not covered by insurance of MSP, since HSV is so common in the population.
  • How it is treated? Herpes cannot be cured but can be managed: there is medication that can help prevent and reduce the length of outbreaks. Doctors can also prescribe pain medication for severe outbreaks.
HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus)
  • What is it? HIV is the virus that causes AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome) by attacking your body’s immune system and preventing it from fighting off certain infections. Although those with healthy immune systems may be able to fight these infections off, people with HIV might not be able to. When someone has HIV and acquires a certain number of infections, it can progress to being called AIDS, although this may not occur for many years.
  • How do you get it? HIV is only acquired by the virus entering your bloodstream. The virus can be transmitted through blood, vaginal fluids, semen and breast milk. You can get HIV by having unprotected sex (vaginal, anal, oral) or by sharing needles or other drug use equipment (cookers, water, filters, etc), as well as other lower risk activities.
    • A note about HIV transmission: HIV cannot be acquired through casual contact such as hugging, shaking hands, tears, sharing food or toilet seats.
  • What are the symptoms? Since it’s possible to have no symptoms for many years, you can have HIV and not know it. For this reason it’s important to get tested, as you could pass on the virus to a partner without knowing you have it. However, If it does present itself in symptoms, you might develop a mild flu ~2-4 weeks after infection.
  • How do you get tested? You can get a blood test at Student Health Service.
  • How is it treated? Although there is no cure for HIV, most people who receive treatment and care lead long lives, without any progression to AIDS. HIV treatment involves drugs that need to be taken every day to keep the virus under control. For more information about treatment, click here.

If you have any more questions about sexual health, please come visit us at the Wellness Centre! We answer sexual health questions and also sell safer sex products (condoms, toys, etc.) at cost.

For more STI information, visit:

Post written by Sierra Peterson

STI information referenced from the Public Health Agency of Canada (

HIV treatment information referenced from CATIE(