Health is wealth or so the saying goes and as we head towards the season of giving, the one gift we don’t want to receive this Christmas – or indeed re-gift – is an STI, thank you very much.
With all the merriment in the air and alcohol-fuelled nights impairing our judgement, the season can do us dirty, convincing us that the thrill of a one-night stand without protection has main character energy. Ah, the classic ‘do I fancy you, or is it just December?’ mind fuckery. Jägerbombs have a lot to answer for.
Party season is well and truly underway and with it comes a labyrinth of sudden feelings and urges to navigate. It can be a notoriously frisky time of year and with free prosecco a’flowing, it’s easy to slip into risk-taking behaviour. What can we say, there’s just something about the festivities that makes us more likely to get a little more amorous.
With that in mind, we’ve got a few golden rules, tips and tricks to have up your sleeve to ensure it’s the most wonderful time of the year for both you and your sexual health. From STI screenings to sex toy hygiene, here’s a run-down of everything you need to know.
The cardinal rules
Use protection – Adulthood is great and everything but STIs, not so much! Enter: condoms, the one accessory you can’t be without for party season. However you identify, carrying one is not only responsible but empowering and your best defence against sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. Having safe sex is sexy, folks! You can pick up condoms for free from your GP or a sexual health clinic or purchase them from the pharmacy or supermarket.
If you take the contraceptive pill, wear the patch or have the injection, it’s important you’re covered and have enough provisions over the Christmas period. If getting a GP appointment isn’t possible, a sexual health clinic will be able to help you.
If you’ve had unprotected sex in the last five days and require emergency contraception, contact NHS 111 (England) or pop into your nearest Boots store to have a friendly and confidential chat with the pharmacist. You can also buy the emergency morning-after pill online at Boots in case you need it in the future. You’ll be asked to fill out a questionnaire so a pharmacist can check if your chosen pill is suitable.
Pee after sex / genital simulation – UTIs just LOVE to find us at Christmas. To reduce the risk, flush out any bacteria from your urethra caused by intercourse by peeing after sex. On the subject of UTIs – avoid sitting around in damp workout clothes or bathing suits and don’t switch from anal to vaginal intercourse without changing the condom.
Ditch the douching – as tempting as it is to cleanse your yoni in a post-sex cleanup, this can often do more harm than good. If you do want to have a post-action cleanse, stick to good old fashioned plain warm water and clean the vulva. Don’t venture inside as this can upset your pH levels. Your vagina is a self-cleaning goddess, leave her be. Same with penis-having people – when faced with the dilemma of whether to dunk or not to dunk after sex (s/o to *that* penis beaker Mumsnet post. Truly the gift that keeps on giving), avoid using soaps and scented body wash on the head of the penis. As for the penis beaker, there’s really no need. Keep things simple and stick to showering with warm water.
Stay hydrated – not only does it help preserve vaginal lubrication, but it also goes hand-in-hand with peeing after sex. Stay hydrated, have regular bathroom breaks, and reduce your risk of UTIs. Simple.
Getting checked for Sexually Transmitted Infections
STIs are predominantly spread by sexual contact, including oral, vaginal or anal sex, so even if you didn’t have penetrative sex, you can still be at risk of infections and passing an STI to a sexual partner. Some STIs can also be spread via blood or skin-to-skin contact.
Different infections have different incubation periods (the time between doing the deed and onset of symptoms) but most clinics recommend getting tested as soon as possible to be on the safe side.
People can react differently to the same STI and sometimes there are no noticeable symptoms at all, which is why getting tested regularly, particularly between new partners and after unprotected sex, is the only way to know for certain and start the year with a clean bill of health.
Here’s a list of some general symptoms to be aware of:
- Discharge from the penis or vagina
- Pain when urinating
- Pain during sex
- Blisters, sores or itchiness around the genitals
- Rashes on the skin
- Abdominal pain
- Strong odour
- Bleeding between periods
What to expect from an STI screening
Whilst the thought of discussing intimate details with a stranger (albeit a professional one) doesn’t exactly scream Merry Christmas, remember this is their job – they’ve heard and seen it all before.
The test itself is straightforward and confidential. The initial consultation usually involves discussing the reason for your visit, how many sexual partners you’ve had, what type of sex you’ve engaged in, how often you use protection, potential symptoms you’re experiencing and your medical history – this all helps to inform your screening and what test is appropriate for you.
Depending on what you need to be tested for, you’ll either give a urine, blood or swab sample (vagina / anus / cheek / throat) which will be sent off to a lab for examination. In some instances, the clinician will also perform an external examination, for example, to diagnose genital warts and herpes.
Many clinics offer rapid testing for HIV but other test results can take up to 2 weeks. Your clinician will ask you how you’d prefer to receive your results i.e via text, email or a phone call.
What do if you test positive for an STI
Whilst this might not be the Crimbo surprise you were hoping for, it’s important you know you’re not alone. Anyone who is sexually active is at risk – more than 1 million STIs are acquired every day worldwide and you certainly won’t be the first or the last person to deal with one.
Some STIs can cause serious health issues if left undetected so even if it doesn’t feel like it, it’s better than you’re in the know. If your test comes back positive (meaning you have a sexually transmitted infection), your GP or sexual health nurse will be able to tell you the next steps regarding medication or treatment. Whilst not all STIs/STDs are curable (herpes, HIV, Hepatitis B, HPV) most infections can be eliminated with antibiotics and antiviral medication within a few days/weeks.
Informing your sexual partner/s
Depending on the STI, your health care provider might ask about sexual partners you’ve had over the last few months so you can discuss who needs to be notified.
Letting your sexual partners know they need to get tested isn’t anyone’s idea of fun alas, it’s a conversation that needs to be had to protect their health and prevent passing the infection to others. If you feel unable to inform them yourself, the Health Advisers will be able to notify them on your behalf without revealing your identity. This is called partner notification.
Keeping up to date with your body admin
It might not be the most thrilling of jobs to tick off your list at the start of the new year, but if you’ve had a particularly (ahem) busy Christmas, a visit to the sexual health clinic or GP for a full MOT should be as routine as washing your hair.
For anyone struggling to fit in a 3-hour appointment to the walk-in clinic (read: everybody), free at-home self-test kits are available online. Please note access to self-tests is dependent on your location.
How to do right by your sex toys:
Lesson one: sanitisation.
Whether you’ve just received a new plaything for Christmas or you’re a seasoned user of The Poet, keeping your toys in tip-top condition and bacteria-free will extend their shelf-life and keep your genitals happy too. Win win!
How you clean your toys will depend on what material they’re made from however, regardless of whether they’re porous or non-porous, it’s a good idea to clean any toy straight after use, especially if you’re sharing it with your partner.
We get it, cleaning your intimate accessories is a bit of a buzzkill so if you’re looking for an excuse to get out of cleaning just use a condom on your sex toys every time. Pesky germs, be gone!
In terms of genital-friendly products, a mild unscented soap will do the job. Your vaginal microflora is a sensitive soul, so scented soap is a no-no as it can disrupt your vagina’s pH balance (which can lead to infections FYI).
If your toy is made from porous materials, usually elastomer or latex, they might get warped with exposure to hot water. If in doubt, always consult your trusty instructions to check you’re not going to do any damage. A broken vibrator is not conducive to a holly jolly Christmas.
For vibrators, it’s best to wipe them down with a warm damp dishcloth and unscented soap.
The moral of the story: treat your genitals with kindness this Christmas and do your post-wank washing up.
Storing your sex toys
Whilst we’re all guilty of plonking our precious vibrators in our bedside drawer to rub shoulders with the miscellaneous (Vicks nasal inhaler anyone?), dust and lint does not a happy vagina make. And a vibrator with a funky menthol pine needle kick will certainly make for an angry one.
Protecting the goods with a satin bag will solve all your problems and should anyone be nosy enough to trip across your techno-coloured collection, they’ll have one more barrier to get through.
The risk of infection isn’t just limited to the vagina. The rectum is home to all kinds of bacteria so if you’re using a toy anally, the same applies. Do your washing up and stow them away nicely.