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Do you think lockdown means you can press pause on your sexual health? Think again.

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Be a home-testing hero: 3 reasons why you should check in with your sexual health, even in lockdown

Have you thought about sexual health during the Covid-19 lockdown? It might be the last thing on your mind if you’re not having any sex, but now is the perfect #timetotest for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Social distancing regulations have given us a once in a lifetime opportunity to reduce the rate of STI transmission in the UK. Why? Fewer people are having sex with new partners, so there is less opportunity to pass on infections. It can take several weeks for STIs to show up in tests. If the whole sexually-active population got tested now, we’d have the chance to diagnose and treat infections, reducing the number of STIs going back into circulation post-lockdown.

We want you to be a #home-testing hero. Order a test kit now via SH:24 or Fettle Health, use our quarantine filter on instagram, and tag us in your story to let us know you’re taking part @sh24_nhs

What is ‘sexual health’ anyway?

Sexual health is about taking care of your body and mind, and making sure that you feel safe and comfortable with whatever sexual experience you’re into. Sex should be fun and enjoyable, not something that makes you anxious. The World Health Organisation definition of sexual health refers to a ‘state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality.’ It’s not just about STIs, but regular testing will help you to feel confident about your sexual health.

So how often do you think about it? Whenever you change sexual partners? Or maybe you get a regular STI test, just in case. Perhaps you have never thought about it until you read this headline. You wouldn’t be alone; although there was a 7% rise in the number of consultations in sexual health services (both in clinic and online) between 2017 and 2018, there are still many people who don’t get tested, or might be passing on infections without knowing it.

Here are three reasons why lockdown is a good time to check in with your sexual health.

1. Many of the most common infections are hard to spot

If you’ve got an STI, you may not have any obvious symptoms for months or even years after you’ve been infected. Common STIs, like chlamydia, may not give you any symptoms at all. This means that you could have passed on the infection on without knowing it. The only way to know whether you have an infection is to get tested. If you’ve stopped having sex during lockdown, it’s a great time to get tested and treat any infections before you start having sex again.

STIs can only be picked up by tests several weeks after you’ve been exposed to infection. We’d normally ask you to wait for this ‘window period’ before you order your test.

As we’ve been in lockdown for more than 9 weeks, the ‘window period’ has passed. The most common STIs - chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV - will show up in tests, even if you haven’t noticed any symptoms.

2. STI rates are increasing, but you can help to reduce them by testing in lockdown

While the HPV vaccination programme has seen a huge drop in the number of genital warts diagnoses, many STI rates are on the rise. According to Public Health England (PHE), syphilis cases have doubled in the last decade. While syphilis affects a relatively small number of people (7,541 diagnoses in 2018, compared to over 218,000 confirmed cases of chlamydia), it’s an infection that can have very serious consequences if untreated.

STI test swab

In the same period, cases of gonorrhoea rose by 26%, most commonly amongst men who have sex with men. Gonorrhoea can spread quickly through unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sex. It can lead to infertility in women and men if untreated, and can be passed on to a baby during childbirth.

Chlamydia is the most commonly diagnosed STI in the UK, particularly amongst young people aged 15-24. But STIs are not just for the young - the PHE figures showed an increase in gonorrhoea and chlamydia amongst people over 65.

Some of these figures are down to better testing (particularly through the National Chlamydia Screening Programme), but there are still many people who don’t get tested, often because of a lack of time, a fear of the stigma of visiting a clinic or getting a positive result, or just a lack of awareness about how serious these infections can get.

We’ve got a chance to lower these rates now, if as many people as possible get tested during lockdown.

3. STIs are easy to treat - but can get serious if you don’t pick them up early

Even during lockdown, it’s easy to get tested and treated. You can order a test kit online, and most STIs can be cleared up with a short course of treatment. For HIV, modern treatments are very effective if the infection is picked up at an early stage. By starting treatment during lockdown, people who have been diagnosed with HIV can start to reduce levels of the virus in their body well before they start having sexual contact again.

While some STI treatment is available by prescription online, you can still access medication from your local sexual health clinic during lockdown if you’ve tested positive for an infection. When you order a test kit from us, we’ll send your results by text. If you need treatment, we’ll treat you if we can or help you find your nearest clinic. You can check the clinic website or call them to arrange treatment. It’s not worth waiting to find out what happens if you let the infection develop - most STIs can lead to serious health problems if left untreated.

It’s important to remember that treatment for STIs doesn’t stop you getting infected again in the future. Chlamydia and gonorrhoea reinfection is very common, so you should keep using protection when you start having sex again, and get tested regularly while you are sexually active.

Nominate your friends to be home-testing heroes!

STI testing hero badge

Sex is a a funny thing. We like to have it, but we don’t always like to talk about it.

In a study by the Family Planning Association in 2016, more than two thirds of people surveyed said they’d never had a test for STIs. 31% said they found it easier to have sex than to talk about sex.

We want to change the conversation about sexual health. STIs are a normal part of the sexual experience for many people. So it shouldn’t be unusual to test for them. The best way to protect yourself from STIs is to use a condom, but regular testing can help you keep an eye on things and get treatment when you need it.

Many people are still embarrassed to go to a clinic, or are worried about what their friends and family will think if they get an STI test. Others are frightened that they will get a positive test result. Some people find it hard to make time to get tested.

But if we take the time during lockdown, we could reduce STI rates for good. Let’s do it together now, so we can get back to doing it later.

Become a home-testing hero and order a test today. Nominate 5 friends to do the same, and keep talking about sexual health!

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