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Sexual Health

What is sexual health?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines sexual health as "a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality". For the WHO, sexual health is more than just "the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity", but rather "a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships". They close their definition by writing that "for sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled".

More commonly, when the term 'sexual health' is used by healthcare providers, it is to refer to the provision of screening, treatment and management programmes for sexually transmitted infections, though the WHO's definition is of course still useful in terms of a more positive overall image of sexual health and our attitudes towards sex and sexuality.

What are sexually transmitted infections (STIs)?

Sexually transmitted infections are infections that are caught or passed on through unprotected sex or genital contact.

What are sexual health conditions?

There are many conditions that can affect the sexual organs, but aren't infections. Sexual health conditions result from urinary tract infections (UTIs), mental health issues or the natural process of ageing. In other words, sexual health conditions impact the sexual organs, but are not necessarily transmitted sexually.

What forms of STI are there?

Some of the most common types of sexually transmitted infection found in the UK today.

  • Chlamydia - One of the most common STIs, particularly in under 25s. Easily treated if caught early.
  • Syphilis - One of the most serious STIs, causing life changing health problems if left untreated.
  • Genital herpes - A virus passed on through unprotected sex. Visible in blistering or sores on the genitals.
  • Genital warts - The second most common sexually transmitted infection in the UK. Not dangerous, but highly visible.
  • Gonorrhoea - The third most commonly diagnosed STI in the UK. Easily treated if caught early, like chlamydia.
  • HIV - A virus that affects the immune system's ability to fight off illness. Can develop into AIDS if left untreated.
  • Pubic lice - Passed through protected or unprotected sex, as lice move between people from skin-to-skin contact.

What is the difference between STIs and STDs?

STI stands for sexually transmitted infection, and STD stands for sexually transmitted disease. At first, these two terms seem interchangeable, but the "infection" rather than "disease" makes a world of difference. Medically speaking, an 'infection' refers to bacteria, viruses or parasites entering the body. That's all.

An infection can cause symptoms and medical complications, but this is not an essential part of the definition of an infection. A disease, on the other hand, by its very definition will cause symptoms and/or medical complications. An STD is an example of an STI for example, but an STI is not an example of an STD.

How do you get an STI or sexual health condition?

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are acquired during vaginal, anal and oral sex, passing from person to person in blood, semen or vaginal and other bodily fluids.

Some STIs or sexual health conditions can be passed through non-sexual means such as via the blood, or even from mother to child during pregnancy. Speak to a doctor if you suspect this to be the case.

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