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A healthy sex life

an African man and woman embracing and smiling

Sexual health means more than being free of sexually transmitted infections or avoiding an unwanted pregnancy. It means having the confidence and skills to ask for the sex that makes you feel good.

It also means respecting your partners and taking responsibility for their sexual health as well as your own.

Some of us have STIs that cannot be cured (such as HIV, or herpes) or that we live with long term (like hepatitis B or hepatitis C).

We can still have healthy, happy sex lives and good sexual health if these infections have been diagnosed and are being treated and the sex we have is protected.


What is protected sex?

Protected sex means using a male or female condom during sex if one of you has HIV and a detectable viral load.

Condoms should be used with water-based lubricant as oil-based lube weakens them.

HIV treatment is also a form of protection. If you have an undetectable viral load you cannot pass on HIV.

It’s important to remember that if you have sex without a condom other STIs can be passed on.

Sex without a condom can also result in an unplanned pregnancy if other contraception is not being used.


Where do I go for sexual health advice?

Good sexual health depends on regular check-ups and knowing about protected sex.

Check-ups will make sure any STIs are quickly diagnosed and treated. Most people get checked at a sexual health clinic, which is usually part of a hospital.

You can go on your own or with a friend or partner and you don’t need to be sent by a doctor. It’s a free and confidential service, and staff should be friendly and not judge you.

Health advisers are clinic staff who aren’t doctors but you can talk to them about a wide range of things to do with sex and relationships. You can choose which clinic you go to.


Privacy of your health records

Some people prefer to get checked by their GP (family doctor) if the surgery offers this service (if not, you’ll be referred by your doctor to a clinic). Choose wherever you feel most comfortable.

Clinics are confidential and no-one is told of your visit or what tests and treatment you receive.

If you go to your GP any test and treatments will go on your medical notes.


How often should I get tested?

How often you should be checked depends upon how many people you have sex with:

If you don't have a regular partner and you have casual sex you should go at least once every six months.

If you have lots of sexual partners have a check-up more often than every six months.

If you get any symptoms that may be an STI (eg, sores, inflammation or discharge), go to a clinic straight away and don’t have sex until given the all-clear.

Before having sex at the start of a new relationship - have a check-up, especially if you're thinking about not using condoms (then HIV tests are strongly recommended). A sexual health screening should also include an HIV test.

If you have HIV it's important to find out whether your viral load is undetectable before considering sex without a condom. Remember that having sex without a condom can lead to other STIs being passed on.


How do I find a sexual health clinic?

For more about getting a sexual health check-up and to find local clinics, contact THT Direct on 0808 802 1221 or use our service finder.


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The Information Standard: Certified member

This article was last reviewed on 10/6/2016 by Anna Peters

Date due for the next review: 12/6/2019

Content Author: R Scholey

Current Owner: Health Promotion

More information:

Sexual Activity Without Condoms and Risk of HIV Transmission in Serodifferent Couples When the HIV-Positive Partner Is Using Suppressive Antiretroviral Therapy, Journal of the American Medical Association: Alison J. Rodger, MD; Valentina Cambiano, PhD; Tina Bruun, RN; Pietro Vernazza, MD; Simon Collins; Jan van Lunzen, PhD; Giulio Maria Corbelli; Vicente Estrada, MD; Anna Maria Geretti, MD; Apostolos Beloukas, PhD; David Asboe, FRCP; Pompeyo Viciana, MD1; Félix Gutiérrez, MD; Bonaventura Clotet, PhD; Christian Pradier, MD; Jan Gerstoft, MD; Rainer Weber, MD; Katarina Westling, MD; Gilles Wandeler, MD; Jan M. Prins, PhD; Armin Rieger, MD; Marcel Stoeckle, MD; Tim Kümmerle, PhD; Teresa Bini, MD; Adriana Ammassari, MD; Richard Gilson, MD; Ivanka Krznaric, PhD; Matti Ristola, PhD; Robert Zangerle, MD; Pia Handberg, RN; Antonio Antela, PhD; Sris Allan, FRCP; Andrew N. Phillips, PhD; Jens Lundgren, MD
JAMA. 2016;316(2):171-181. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.5148

Viral load, Michael Carter, Greta Hughson, NAM, Aidsmap, March 2014

More confidence on zero risk: still no transmissions seen from people with an undetectable viral load in PARTNER study, Gus Cairns, NAM, Aidsmap, July 2016

Open your eyes to STIs, NHS Choices, Nov 2015

When sex goes wrong, NHS Choices, Nov 2015

Pre exposure prophylaxis, Roger Pebody, NAM, Aidsmap, October 2016

Can post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) stop me getting HIV?, NHS Choices, Sep 2015

No one with an undetectable viral load, gay or heterosexual, transmits HIV in first two years of PARTNER study, Gus Cairns, NAM aidsmap, March 2014

Viral load and transmission, a factsheet for people with HIV, Gus Cairns, NAM aidsmap, September 2015

Viral load and transmission, a factsheet for HIV negative people, Gus Cairns, NAM aidsmap, September 2015

Genital herpes, NHS Choices, August 2014

Sexually transmitted infections, NHS Choices, April 2015

Hepatitis B, NHS Choices, March 2016

Hepatitis C, NHS Choices, July 2015

Visiting an STI clinic, NHS Choices, December 2015

What services do sexual health clinics (GUM clinics) provide? NHS, May 2015

M Carter, Prognosis, NAM, March 2012

M Carter, Infectiousness, NAM, September 2015

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