Five Action Steps to Good Sexual Health

5 Make Sexual Health Part of Your Health Care Routine

Did you know that preventive health services can protect and improve your sexual health, and even save lives? They can help prevent cancers, plan pregnancies, detect and treat common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) before they cause serious problems, and safeguard your ability to have children.

Yet, over half of us are not getting these highly recommended services, which include vaccines, screenings, contraceptives, and counseling. How about you? It’s easy to learn about these services, and make sure that you get what you need.  This is one of the most important steps you can take for your sexual health.

Five Good Reasons to Take This Step

  1. Leading medical organizations recommend that we all get preventive health services. For example:
    • The HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine is recommended for youth, ideally at ages 11-12, and can prevent cancer.
    • Everyone between the ages of 13 and 65 should be tested for HIV at least once.
  2. You won’t go broke taking care of your sexual health. If you have health insurance, most of these services are now available free-of-charge, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Even if you don’t have health insurance, you can often access these services for free or low cost at  community clinics.
  3. Health care providers don’t always suggest or provide recommended services. So, don’t assume that you automatically get what you need at your health care visit. For example,
    • If you’re a woman, your provider might suggest a routine Pap test that checks for pre-cancerous cells in the cervix, but it does not test for STIs. You might need to ask for STI screening.
    • If you're a man, there are many important services for you, such as the HPV vaccine, HIV testing, and STI screening. Has your provider offered any of them?
  4. Think you’re not at risk? Think again. STIs are very common. By age 25, half of all people who have had sex will get at least one STI. Each year, there are an estimated 20 million new cases of STIs.
  5. Regular screening is key since most STIs don’t have any symptoms. STIs can cause serious problems if not treated, such as infertility. The good news? If detected early, many STIs can be easily cured, while others can be well-managed with medication.

Making it Happen: Tips and Advice

Weight? Check. Blood pressure? Check. Sexual health? Check.

Be sure to get regular sexual health check-ups.

Keeping on top of your sexual health should be part of your health care routine every year, just like blood pressure checks. If any problems or symptoms develop in between visits — or you think you might be at risk — you can go to your provider more often. See the resources below to learn more about the services that are recommended for women and men:

For women, click here: http://www.ncshguide.org/services/women
For men, click here: http://www.ncshguide.org/services/men

Am I at risk of STIs, including HIV? You are at risk if you’ve had unprotected sex (vaginal, anal or oral sex without a condom), have multiple partners, have an STI (including HIV), share injection drug equipment, or exchange sex for drugs or money. You are also at risk if your partner engages in any of these behaviors, or if you don’t know their health history.

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Don’t leave it to someone else.

Take charge of your sexual health, and find out which specific services you need.

Services are recommended for men and women based on age and sexual behavior. Your health care provider can also help you decide which ones you should get.

Check out a chart below to learn more about what’s best for you. Also, you might be at higher risk and need screening more often. The charts can be accessed on your mobile phone, or print them out to bring to your next health care visit.  

For women, click here: http://www.ncshguide.org/services/recommended-women
For men, click here: http://www.ncshguide.org/services/recommended-men

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Make sure your shots are up-to-date.

Shots can now prevent certain male and female cancers, genital warts, and liver disease and damage.

Did you know the HPV vaccine, which is safe and effective, can help prevent genital warts, cervical cancer, and some other male and female cancers (vulvar, vaginal, penile, anal, rectal, and throat)? Hepatitis vaccines, which can prevent liver disease and damage, are also recommended. Are your vaccines current? (Check out the charts in the previous tip.)

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Get screened for HIV and STIs, even if you don't have symptoms.

Everyone who has ever had sex should be tested for HIV at least once.

Depending on whether you’re male or female, your age, and your sexual history, you might also need to be screened for other STIs. For example,

  • All sexually active women ages 24 and younger should be screened for chlamydia and gonorrhea each year. Chlamydia is a leading cause of infertility. It can damage your ability to get pregnant. And, women aged 25 and older who have had unprotected sex (sex without a condom) or other risk factors should also be tested. A series of STI tests is also a part of routine care for pregnant women.
  • If you are a man who has sex with men, you should be screened at least annually for HIV and other STIs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. If you have unprotected sex or other risk factors, you should be screened every three to six months.
  • If you are a man who has sex with women, you should be screened for HIV at least once. And, if you have unprotected sex or other risk factors, you might need to be tested for HIV more often, and screened for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Check with your provider.

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If you have an STI, the sooner you get treated, the better.

Many common STIs are caused by bacteria or viruses. Bacterial STIs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, can often be easily cured with simple antibiotics.

Viral STIs, such as herpes and HIV, are lifelong infections, but they can be effectively managed with medications.

  • If you have herpes, medications can reduce the number and severity of outbreaks, and lower the risk of giving herpes to your partner.
  • Medications are also available to help prevent HIV infection.
    • If you have HIV, taking your antiretroviral medications every day can reduce the risk of giving HIV to your partner by up to 96%.
    • If your partner has HIV, but you don't, you can take a medication called PrEP that will reduce your risk of getting HIV by 92% or more.
    • If you think you have been exposed to HIV, you can take a medicine call PEP. See a doctor right away if you've shared needles or had unprotected sex with someone who you think has HIV. You need to start taking PEP within 72 hours of exposure.
  • You can still date and have a sex life after an STI diagnosis, but you should take extra steps to protect you and your partner. Be sure to tell your partner if you currently have an STI BEFORE you get physical, so they can make an informed choice. If you do decide to get sexual, you can discuss how to reduce risk, which could include taking medication, using condoms, and/or avoiding sex during outbreaks if you have herpes. Specific guidelines depend on the type of STI you have. (See Action Step 3 for advice on talking about STIs with partners and on dating with an STI).

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Get on top of your birth control.

Thanks to a variety of birth control methods, most women can decide if, and when, they want to have a child. Men can also benefit. Many men also want to avoid unplanned pregnancies, and to only become fathers when they are ready.

Many safe, effective, and easy–to-use birth control methods are available. Before you have sex, explore the wide range of options, talk with your provider, and find a method that’s right for you. See the Resource List at the end.

If you have private insurance or Medicaid, all FDA-approved birth control methods, except for male condoms, are now available for free, including the pill, intrauterine device (IUD), and implant. And, if you have a prescription, you can also get female condoms at no cost. However, if you don’t have insurance, you can often obtain birth control for free or at low cost at family planning clinics, Planned Parenthood clinics, or community health centers.

More women are now using IUDs and implants since they are over 99% effective in preventing pregnancy. Once they are put in place by your health care provider, you don’t need to do anything. And, if you do want to get pregnant, your provider can easily remove either method.

Keep in mind that only condoms — both male and female condoms — can protect you from BOTH STIs and unplanned pregnancy. So, for dual protection, some people use condoms, along with another effective birth control method. (See Action Step 2 for more tips on birth control methods, condoms, and safer sex.)

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Find a provider who addresses sexual health.

A variety of health care providers can deliver preventive sexual health services, including nurse practitioners, physician assistants, family doctors, general medicine doctors, internists, and nurse-midwives.

Specialists, such as obstetricians and gynecologists (OB/GYN) focus on women’s reproductive health, while urologists focus on men’s reproductive health. Other professionals, such as pharmacists, mental health professionals, and health educators can also provide services and advice. For example, in some states, pharmacists can prescribe birth control. And mental health professionals, such as sex counselors or therapists, can help when sexual problems arise.

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Find a provider who doesn’t make you sweat or clam up.

You have a right to a provider who makes you feel comfortable.

Find a provider who respects you, listens to you, and provides the services you need. For example, a good provider will:

  • Have a friendly and welcoming staff, answer your questions clearly and respectfully, and explain what they’re doing and why.
  • NOT assume to know your sexual behaviors or sexual orientation without asking, will not be judgmental, and will not disrespect you in any way.

Click here to learn more about how to find a good provider.

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Talk openly and honestly with your provider.

Talking about your sexual health might not be easy at first. It might be feel embarrassing or uncomfortable.

But, if you talk honestly with your provider about your body and concerns, you should get better care and advice. Your provider will probably ask you some routine questions, which they ask all of their patients.

But, you should also bring your own questions, and be sure to get the answers. For example, you might want to ask:

  • What tests are you giving me? What should I be tested for?
  • How can I protect myself from STIs and HIV?
  • What are the most effective birth control methods?
  • Do I need any vaccines?
  • My sex drive is lower than normal. What’s the deal?

For examples of other questions you might ask, click here

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If you don’t have health insurance, free or low cost services might be available.

Check out local community health centers, family planning clinics, Planned Parenthood clinics, health departments, migrant health centers, rural health centers, and free & charitable clinics. Click here to locate a provider or clinic, and see the Resource List at the end of this step.

Final Thoughts

It’s time to give your sexual health the attention it deserves, and to make sexual health part of your health care routine. Want to learn more about what is recommended for you and how to talk with a health care provider? Check out Take Charge of Your Sexual Health. It’s mobile-friendly so you can easily access the content, even when you’re visiting a health care provider. It is available in English and Spanish.

Resources to Learn More

Antiretroviral HIV Treatment

Birth Control, Including Emergency Contraception

Find a Provider or Clinic

How to Talk With a Provider

PrEP

Recommended Preventive Sexual Health Services (including how to find and talk with a health care provider) 

Sexually Transmitted Infections, Hepatitis, and HIV