Can your pharmacist help you with your sexual health?
How often should you visit a sexual health clinic for a check-up?
In 2020 there were 318,000 STI diagnoses in England, according to Public Health England. Last year there was also a 10% decrease in consultations at sexual health services compared with 2019. However, the importance of regular sexual health check-ups remains higher than ever.
Public Health England's figures show that the impact of STIs remains greatest in young people aged 15-24. However, anyone who is sexually active should have regular check-ups marked in their calendar.
While visits to the sexual health clinic may not be everyone's favourite pastime, regular check-ups are essential to protect you and any sexual partners, even if you feel fine and aren't showing symptoms of an STI. In fact, many infections, including gonorrhoea and chlamydia, don’t have noticeable symptoms in some people. Therefore, avoiding those check-ups could result in your condition worsening and having a great impact on your health in the future.
When should I go to a sexual health clinic?
Getting check-ups for your sexual health could save your life, or someone else's. Regular checks can also help put your mind at ease if you're concerned about something. The earlier something is diagnosed and addressed, the easier it is to treat and the lower the risk of long-term complications.
Some reasons you may visit a sexual health clinic
- You've never been tested.
- You have a new partner.
- You want to start a family.
- Something abnormal or worrying happened recently during sex.
- A previous partner has told you they have an STI.
- You've had unprotected sex.
- You want to switch your contraception method.
- You have symptoms of infection.
Possible symptoms of infection
- Bleeding during or after sex.
- Pain during sex.
- Pain when urinating or ejaculating.
- Blisters/sores on genitals.
- Itching or rash.
- Abnormal vaginal discharge.
What are the risks of putting off check-ups?
Avoiding regular sexual health screenings could result in the transmission of STIs and infections. It also prevents STIs from being treated as early as possible, whereas regular check-ups allow you to maintain sexual health.
Dr John McSorley, President of BASHH, explains that the importance of regular check-ups cannot be understated, as STIs, and unintended pregnancies, along with other infections can have life-changing consequences.
"I strongly encourage people to come forward for testing both online and in person. Everyone is entitled to a healthy sex life, and whatever your age, it's important to practise safe sex to ensure your own, as well as your partner's, good sexual health," he says.
Discussing the impact STIs can have on someone's quality of life, Dr McSorley explains: "Apart from the worry, stress and disruption to relationships, infections can give rise to many physical symptoms too. From the short-term embarrassing smells, soreness and rashes that may require treatments, to quite serious long-term damage to pelvic organs, and infertility from chlamydia or brain or nerve damage from syphilis."
What are the benefits of regular check-ups?
Frequent check-ups can have a range of benefits on both personal health and relationships with others:
STIs can be diagnosed and treated promptly.
Infections without symptoms can be picked up.
- Trust and connection with sexual partners can be strengthened.
- Open communication is easier.
- Getting tested before you embark on new relationships and sexual encounters can reduce anxiety.
- You can be reassured and understand better what any symptoms you're experiencing might mean.
- You are in control of managing your health.
- Confidential clinics offer a safe space to ask questions and seek advice about a wide range of topics relating to sex and relationships.
What to expect at a check-up
You will likely need to book an appointment at a clinic before attending. You will then wait to be called into a room where you will discuss with a professional why you are visiting the clinic. They will also ask you questions about your medical history, and may take your blood pressure and weigh you.
Dr McSorley reassures that sexual health services are free, open, there for you and never easier to access, encouraging everyone to go online and check out what's available.
What might I be asked?
Be prepared to answer questions on your sexual history, such as:
- When you last had sex.
- Whether you've had unprotected sex.
- Why you might be concerned about an infection.
Will I need to give samples?
Depending on the reason for your appointment, you may need to be examined, which will be discussed with you.
If you are attending for a sexual health screen for possible infections, you could be asked for samples including:
- Vaginal (can often be done yourself).
The type of swab required is dependent on the type of sex you have. Only samples you consent to give will be taken.
How and when you receive your results will depend on the clinic. However, most places aim to respond swiftly and they can often be sent via text message.
Can I get condoms at a sexual health clinic?
You can also get supplies of contraception like condoms and pills at your check-ups, and you will be given advice on how to use them effectively. If you want a long-term method of contraception, like a coil, an implant or an injection, check-ups are also a place to discuss the available options.
Are check-ups confidential?
Check-ups at sexual health clinics are carried out by clinic staff who are health advisors, but not doctors. However, they are highly trained and still prioritise confidentiality. They should be friendly and non-judgemental, as well as open to questions and queries regarding other aspects of sex and relationships.
Sometimes your records will be shared with your GP, but only with your permission.
The legal age of sexual consent in the UK is 16. If you're aged 13-15, you are still able to visit a sexual health clinic to access support and treatment. However, professionals must be certain you understand the information they give you in order to maintain confidentiality.
Clinic staff will encourage anyone under 16 wanting to access contraception, STI tests or abortions to consider telling a parent or carer. They can't force you to do this, as you still have the same confidentiality rights as an adult.
If you are below the age of 13, where the law states that you can never fully agree to sexual activity, the situation is different. The clinic staff will want to ask about the person you have had sex with and details about your sexual history in order to keep you safe. They might feel it's necessary to involve other adults, such as a social worker. This is to make sure you aren't being pressured into having sex.
Ultimately, professionals will keep details about your consultation private, unless they believe you're in danger or at risk of harm from sexual abuse. This will be discussed with you first before any steps are taken.
The other times when information you share at a check-up may not be kept strictly confidential are if:
- You are under 18 and mention being abused.
- You are 12 or under and share that someone has had sex with you.
- Your life is at serious risk.
- You mention another person under 18 who is being abused.
- Another person's life is at risk.
Full support should be given, no matter the situation.