Being conscious of your sexual health isn’t just something for teenagers, as health journalist Ceri Moorhouse explains…

Your sexual health probably isn’t something you think about very often as you grow older, but it shouldn’t just be a conversation for teenagers or university students.

With over 29,500 new sexually transmitted infection (STI) diagnoses in 45-64-year-olds in England last year, and diagnoses of chlamydia in this age group rising every year between 2013 and 2017, people of every age should stay on top of their sexual health. Here’s what the experts suggest.

Talk about it

“Sex is something people can find difficult to talk about and this can be particularly true for older age groups,” says Karin O’Sullivan, clinical consultant at sexual health charity FPA. Communicating with your partner and discussing your sexual history, particularly when you are in a new relationship, is a really good thing to do.

Then there’s the ‘it will never happen to me’ attitude. “Due to a lack of sex education and campaigns targeted at older people, many over-45-year-olds believe the risks of getting an STI are very low, so they are less likely to use condoms.” But, “STIs can be caught at any age and condoms are the only method to protect from them.”

Spot symptoms

“Many STIs have no symptoms, so the only way to know is to get tested,” explains Dr Mark Lawton, sexual health and HIV consultant and media chair of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV. This is particularly important if you have engaged in unprotected sex or if you’ve previously had an STI, as it can be much easier for another STI to take hold.

There are some STIs that do show symptoms. These will vary depending on the infection. Among the most commonly diagnosed STIs are chlamydia and gonorrhoea, which “may cause a discharge from the penis, vagina or anus, burning/stinging when passing water, abdominal pain in women; and testicular pain in men.” Other common STI symptoms include: sores or bumps in the genital area, genital itching, unusual discharge, pain when having sex, abdominal pain and fever.

When to get tested

“It’s particularly important to get tested if you’ve had sex with a new partner and it’s a good idea that both people get tested when starting a relationship,” says Dr Lawton. “Just because one person doesn’t have an infection, it doesn’t mean both don’t.”

On a visit to a clinic, “a practitioner will ask for details about your medical history. They will ask why you are visiting and for your most recent sexual history. If there might be a risk of chlamydia or gonorrhea, you may be asked to do a urine test or take a swab. If an examination is required, the practitioner will be able to talk this through with you.” Embarrassment may hold some people back from accessing services, but confidentiality is guaranteed – and your health is more important than shyness.

“All STIs are treatable and most are completely curable with antibiotics. You just need to know about them, hence the importance of testing,” explains Dr Lawton. And with some, the quicker you are diagnosed, the quicker it can be dealt with.

“Some STIs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis, can cause serious long-term damage, so it is best that they get treated as soon as possible”, says Karin.

A different take

A final word from Dr Lawton: “Anyone who is sexually active should pay attention to their sexual health. It should be a normal part of life and health, just as you might go to the dentist every year for a check-up.”

More information on your local sexual health services can be found here.

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