Understanding a woman’s sexual health

Unlike men, women are very private about their sex lives, sharing very little to no details with anyone. However, if you’re sexually active, it is important to pay attention to your sexual health.

The first step in protecting your health is having someone else carry out an examination for you. Getting regular sexual health checks from your doctor or any other trained medical practitioner will help you understand your body and state of mind better.

Although you might feel squeamish, here are some tips on ensuring your good sexual health.

When to get a sexual health check

If you’re sexually active, yet have never gone for a sexual health check, it is time to start now.

Although, you might think it’s awkward to talk to your doctor and/or nurses about it, always remember that they are trained professionals, who are only looking out for your wellbeing.

Make sure you visit a clinic at least every six months or so. A sexual health check is especially important if the following circumstances apply to you:

• You think you might have contracted a sexually-transmitted disease (STI).

• You’ve recently had unprotected sex, including vaginal, oral or anal sex.

• A condom broke or came off during sex.

• You or your partner have more than one sexual partner.

• You’ve shared injecting equipment (needles, etc.).

• You’re at the start of a new sexual relationship.

What happens during a sexual health check?

Whether you’re at a GP or a private clinic, sexual health checks usually start with the medical professionals asking you about your sex life, your body and your state of mind.

If you’ve had multiple partners or unprotected sex, you may be subjected to a few tests to ensure that your sexual health is not at risk.

For example, for STIs (usually a blood or urine test), sexual dysfunction, and cervical cancer (for women). Sexual health check-ups also include discussions about the following:

• Contraception, including long-term contraception options.

• Reproductive issues, such as fertility.

• Your rights in sexual relationships.

• Your feelings about sex.

The doctor will usually start by asking some questions, such as:

• How many sexual partners have you had?

• What type of sexual activity do you engage in?

• Who do you have sex with (men, women or both)?

• Do you have any symptoms that could indicate a sexual health or reproductive problem?

It is important to answer these questions as truthfully as possible. Don’t think that the doctors will judge you for your sexual preferences.

Being honest about the number of partners you have had can help them assess your sexual health more thoroughly.

A physical examination is also part of a sexual health check. With your permission, the doctor or nurse might:

• Examine your external genital area.

• Take swabs of fluid or discharge on a cotton bud for examination under a microscope.

• Ask you to provide a urine sample or blood test.

• Perform a vaginal examination such as a pap smear (a swab on the cervix inside your vagina to test for signs of cervical cancer).

Is it always awkward?

The first few sexual health checks may seem uncomfortable, awkward and embarrassing, but remember that for a doctor or health practitioner, these checks are a normal part of their job.

Try to be honest and open, and trust that your doctor has heard it all before. Your comfort and safety are important.

If you feel that things are more uncomfortable than they should be, or that the doctor is doing or saying things that aren’t professional, you have the right to ask them to stop and to arrange to see a different doctor.

If you are still preparing yourself mentally, here are some general sexual health checks you can look out for, before going to a medical practitioner:

• Lumps and bumps: These can be due to normal anatomical variations, but if new lumps and bumps arise on or near the genitals, they could be genital warts (caused by a wart-causing HPV type) or a viral infection called Molluscum contagiosum.

Ulcers: Blisters, sores and split skin are usually due to genital herpes, which can be diagnosed by taking a swab of the lesion. Syphilis causes distinctive lesions that will be confirmed by blood test.

• Discharge in women: Vaginal discharge can indicate infection with chlamydia, gonorrhoea or trichomoniasis. But other conditions, such as bacterial vaginosis and vaginal thrush (which is not an STI), can also cause vaginal discharge.

• Pelvic pain: Chlamydia, gonorrhoea and Mycoplasma genitalium can pass through the cervix to infect the uterus and fallopian tubes – the upper genital tract – in women. These infections, known collectively as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), can be severe, causing acute pain, fever and scarring that can result in infertility.

This article first appeared in thenewsavvy.com

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