Why is it important to have a sexual health check-up?
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are passed from one person to another through sex or genital contact. They are sometimes referred to as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
If you have a new partner, or you have any symptoms or are worried about STIs it is important to get tested. STIs can affect your chances of getting pregnant, as well as your baby.
Common symptoms of an STI include:
- unusual discharge from the vagina, penis or anus
- pain when peeing
- lumps or skin growths around the genitals or anus
- a rash
- unusual vaginal bleeding
- itchy genitals or anus
- blisters and sores around the genitals or anus
However, most STIs have no symptoms or only mild symptoms that you may not realise are caused by an infection. This means that many people who have an STI will not know they are infected and can pass it on to any sexual partners.
If they are not treated, some STIs can:
- cause infertility
- cause health problems for you and your baby during (and after) pregnancy
- be passed on to your baby
Most STIs can be treated with antibiotics, special creams or shampoos. But some treatments are not suitable if you are pregnant. It’s a good idea for you and your partner to get checked (and treated if needed) before you try for a baby.
Chlamydia and gonorrhoea
These are two of the most common STIs in the UK. Many people with chlamydia and gonorrhoea don’t have any symptoms at all.
Both can lead to infertility in men and women if they are not treated.
The risk of infertility is lower in both conditions if they are treated early. The more times you have them, the more likely you are to have problems.
In pregnancy, chlamydia may cause:
- premature birth (where the baby is born before they are fully formed)
- low birth weight
In pregnancy,gonorrhea may cause:
- premature birth (where the baby is born before they are fully formed)
- the baby being born with conjunctivitis (eye infection).
Chlamydia and gonorrhoea can be treated well with antibiotics.
Genital herpes is a common infection caused the same virus that causes cold sores. It cannot be cured but symptoms can be controlled with medicine.
Herpes symptoms might not appear for weeks or even years after you're infected with the virus. Many people have no symptoms at all.
If you have genital herpes during pregnancy, there's a small risk your baby could develop a serious illness called neonatal herpes. This can be fatal (cause death) if it is not treated. But it is rare and can be prevented if you tell your doctor or midwife about your condition when you find out you are pregnant.
The risk of your baby getting neonatal herpes is low if you've had genital herpes before. It's higher if you get genital herpes for the first time in pregnancy.
Genital herpes can be treated safely in pregnancy. You will also be able to have a vaginal delivery safely or you may be offered a caesarean section.
These are caused by a virus and are the second most common STI in England. It is rare, but warts may be passed to the baby during birth. This can cause infection in the baby's throat or genitals.
Gential warts can be treated safely during pregnancy, but not all treatments will be safe. Talk to your doctor or midwife for further advice.
If you have genital warts you will be able to have a vaginal delivery safely or you may be offered a caesarean section.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that can cause serious, long term health problems if left untreated. It can be cured with antibiotics.
If a woman becomes pregnant when she already has syphilis (or becomes infected while pregnant) it can be very dangerous for the baby. Infection can cause:
All pregnant women are offered a test for syphilis during pregnancy so the infection can be found and treated safely.
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that damages the cells in your immune system making it harder for your body to fight everyday infections and disease. HIV cannot be cured but there is medicine to manage it. Treatment can also prevent you passing it on, which means you won’t infect anyone else.
If HIV is not treated and you become pregnant there's a 1 in 4 chance your baby will become infected with HIV. This risk is much lower (less than 1 in 100) if you are treated in time. Women with HIV will also be able to have a vaginal delivery safely or you may be offered a caesarean section.
If you are diagnosed with HIV talk to your HIV doctor or a nurse so they can advise you about conceiving safely.
Where can I go for a sexual health check-up?
The best places to go are a genito-urinary medicine (GUM) clinic, sexual health clinic, your GP or a young people’s clinic.
All information given will be kept confidential, and the tests are only done with your permission.
You can find details of local GUM clinics by contacting the Sexual Health Line on 0300 123 7123 or the Family Planning Association’s website (www.fpa.org.uk)
Remember that your reproductive partner should have a sexual health check-up too.
What if I find out I have an STI?
Don’t worry. Most STIs can be treated. These are available in most pharmacies or from a GP or GUM clinic.
Some treatments are not suitable if you are trying to get pregnant. Your GP, pharmacist or clinic will let you know which ones.
If you have an STI you shouldn’t have sex until seven days after you and your partner have completed treatment and the infection has cleared. Sometimes, symptoms may not go away after the first treatment and you may need another round. If the treatment doesn’t work you may need more tests.
Tell the doctor, nurse or pharmacist that you want to start trying for a baby. They will be able to advise you about when the infection should clear and when to start trying for a baby.
What if I have an STI that can’t be cured?
It can be a very anxious time if you find out you have a STI that can’t be cured. It is possible though for women living with an incurable STI to get pregnant safely and have a healthy baby, as long as the STI is treated and managed well.
Talk to your doctor or nurse. It’s important that you understand your condition and what you need to do to stay healthy and get pregnant safely
STIs such as HIV and herpes can be treated with antiviral and other medicine to bring down the risk of passing the infection to your baby so make sure that your midwife or doctor know if you have something.
Always check with your doctor or nurse that any medications you are prescribed are suitable for conception.
Remember that even if you have no STIs when you conceive, it’s still advised to practice safe sex through your pregnancy,
More support and information
The Family Planning Association provides straightforward information and support on sexual health, sex and relationships to everyone in the UK.
Public Health England National Sexual Health Helpline 0300 123 7123 (Monday–Friday, 9am to 8pm)
NHS Choices provides information on sexual health including contraception, STIs and sexual health services in your area.
Terrence Higgins Trust provides HIV and sexual health services in the UK, running services out of local centres across Great Britain. Also provides information about HIV and pregnancy.
HIV i-base provides information about HIV including pregnancy and women’s health