How to give yourself a sexual health MOT after the so-called 'summer of love'
IT'S HARSHbut true: the best things in life can be bad for us, and sex is no exception.
Whatever your age, being sexually active puts you at risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI). And experts warn that easing out of lockdown is likely to have driven infections up as people enjoyed a “summer of love”, dating and having more sex than usual.
Lloyds Pharmacy reported a 23% jump in sales of the morning-after pill, as well as a 10% rise in treatments for STIs, in the fortnight after lockdown eased on April 12.
“During lockdown, many people weren’t forming new relationships or meeting new partners, so as normal life returns, it’s important to remember the principles of safe sex and STI testing,” says BBC Breakfast GP, Dr Rachel Ward. To mark Sexual Health Awareness Week, Dr Ward shares her tips.
Teens & 20s
As soon as you become sexually active, you’re at risk of STIs – and having casual sex or more than one sexual partner increases that risk. One of the most common is chlamydia, Dr Ward explains.
“It can cause discharge, pain when peeing, tummy pain or abnormal bleeding in women,” she says. “However, in many cases there are no symptoms, meaning you can pass it on without realising.” That’s why regular testing is so important.
“It’s easy to treat – most cases will go away after a course of antibiotics. But left untreated, it can lead to fertility issues,” Dr Ward adds. Another STI to watch out for is gonorrhoea – untreated, it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility, too. Increasing rates and the emergence of new, treatment-resistant super strains have prompted warnings from Public Health England.
“The latest PHE report showed a 28% increase in gonorrhoea in 20-24-year-olds,” Dr Ward says. “Its symptoms are similar to those of chlamydia – discharge, pain when peeing and abdominal pain.”
Thankfully, the HPV vaccine – given to girls aged 12-13 since 2008 and boys since 2019 – has reduced cases of genital warts in young people, as well as protecting against some cancers.
Everyone, regardless of age, should have annual STI and HIV tests if having unprotected sex with new or casual partners. And Dr Ward adds: “Men who have sex with men should have a check every three months if they are having condom-less sex with new or casual partners.”
What’s more, women over 25 should have regular smear tests to catch any problems early, and all sexually active women should discuss their contraception options with a medical professional.
The good news for 30-somethings is that STI rates for chlamydia, herpes and gonorrhoea tend to decline in your fourth decade. “But that doesn’t mean there are no risks,” Dr Ward warns. “PHE figures show a 17% increase in chlamydia for people aged 35-44. Again, testing is important in case there are no symptoms.”
Pelvic-floor exercises become more important in your 30s to strengthen the muscles around your bladder, bottom and vagina, as these start to lose strength over time, especially after childbirth.
These exercises can make sex better, too. Dr Ward says: “They reduce your chances of developing incontinence, especially in women who have given birth.”
By the time you reach the big 4-0, it’s more likely you’ll be in a stable relationship – and the risk of STIs falls as a result. But just because you’re older and (possibly) wiser, again it doesn’t mean you’re immune.
Genital herpes rose by 5% in those aged 35-44, according to the PHE report. Chlamydia was also rising among people in their early 40s, and rates of gonorrhoea are higher in men aged 35-44 than they are in men under 20.
“Women in their 40s have often completed their childbearing by now, so it’s a good time to think about long-term contraception, such as the Mirena coil,” Dr Ward says.
“Like the pill, this won’t protect you from STIs, so don’t forget to use a condom with a new partner. You may also enter a peri-menopausal phase, which can affect energy levels, periods and sexual health. The good news is that vaginal dryness, which is one of the more common symptoms, can be treated with over-the-counter products, oestrogen or HRT.”
Worryingly, research has shown a rise in HIV diagnoses in the over-50s. “We know that people who get divorced or are widowed are now more likely to have another relationship,” says Dr Ward. “People in this age group are also less worried about pregnancy, so might be less likely to use condoms.”
While the risk of HIV does remain relatively small, despite the rise, Dr Ward warns that people having new or casual relationships in their 50s are still at risk of contracting other STIs, including chlamydia, gonorrhoea and genital herpes.
She adds: “Rates are still relatively low compared to younger age groups, but many of these infections are experiencing an increase. Older people can feel even more embarrassed about seeking help, especially if they have a family doctor, but it’s important to visit your GP or a sexual-health clinic if you think you might have an STI, and you should go for regular testing if you are having unprotected sex.”
60s & over
No age group is immune from the risk of STIs, and PHE pointed to a 17% rise in cases of genital herpes in the over-60s from, while cases of syphilis rose by 27% in the over-65s. “We know that older people are having more casual sex after they are widowed or bereaved than years ago,” Dr Ward says. “Dating apps for older people are helping them start new relationships, and as a result, STIs are increasing in this age group.”
Syphilis can cause painless sores or ulcers on a woman’s vagina, a man’s penis, or around the anus and mouth. “It can also result in a blotchy red rash on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet, small skin growths on a woman’s vulva or bottom, white patches in the mouth, as well as bringing about tiredness, headaches and a fever,” explains Dr Ward.
While it’s easily treated with antibiotics, if left untreated it can spread to the brain and can cause life-threatening problems like meningitis and strokes or heart conditions. She adds: “Sometimes symptoms go away, but you will remain infected unless treated. Fortunately, older people are becoming more aware of the need to screen for STIs.” So, get checked out if you’re concerned.
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