When to go, what to do and how to prepare for your first visit to a sexual health clinic.
Medically reviewed by Dr Louise Wiseman MBBS, BSc (Hons), DRCOG, MRCGP and Dr Clare Morrison
Concerned about your sexual health? If you have had unprotected sex or think you might be at risk of a sexually transmitted infection (STI) it’s important that you get tested as soon as possible. Getting tested and treated for an STI is a straightforward and confidential process, but if you’ve never been to a clinic before it can feel like a daunting process.
To put your mind at ease we spoke to Dr Clare Morrison, GP at MedExpress, about what to expect on your first visit to a sexual health clinic:
What is a sexual health clinic?
Sexual health clinics, also known as GUM (Genitourinary Medicine) clinics are run by the NHS and cater for any sexual health related query, providing free advice and treatment. You can go to a clinic regardless of your age, gender or sexual orientation.
When should you visit a sexual health clinic?
If you have had unprotected sex with a new partner or experience a change in your genital area such as a lump or a rash, make an appointment to visit your local sexual health clinic as soon as possible. You may also be recommended to visit a sexual health clinic if a previous sexual partner has tested positive for an STI and has been advised to do contact tracing.
However, sexual health clinics are not just for STI testing. You can also visit a clinic for contraceptive advice including:
- Emergency contraception
- Pregnancy testing
- Simply to ask sexual health related questions that you feel unable to ask anywhere else.
⚠️ If you have had unprotected sex or think you might be at risk of an STI it’s important that you get tested as soon as possible to ensure you are well and prevent you from passing anything on to a partner.
Why should you visit a sexual health clinic?
It’s a good idea to go directly to a sexual health clinic rather than your GP if you think you might have an STI, as they are equipped to deal with specialist sexual health concerns and can do more thorough investigations quickly.
‘The sexual health clinic offers a wide range of services, which some doctors surgeries might not provide,’ explains Dr Morrison. ‘For example, some surgeries and GPs will not have the equipment to freeze off genital warts, whereas GUM clinics will always have these available.’
If you have had unprotected sex or think you might be at risk it’s important that you get tested as soon as possible.
Staff at sexual health clinics are used to dealing with sexual health worries and will not be embarrassed about anything you want to discuss. They will just be keen to find the correct diagnosis and treat any STIs promptly so there is less chance of complications.
Many people do not experience any symptoms when they have an STI and left untreated some STIs can develop into more serious health concerns, so if you have had unprotected sex or think you might be at risk it’s important that you get tested as soon as possible.
Do you need to book an appointment?
You can go to a clinic regardless of your age, gender or sexual orientation and if you’re under 16 the clinic won’t tell your parents. Most sexual health clinics are walk-in and do not take advance bookings, so call in advance to check opening hours. On the day, make sure you allow enough time for a wait.
Sexual health home testing kits
Some clinics now offer a service online or by telephone with home testing kits to screen for the infections chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV. A syphilis test will not be able to distinguish between an old and recent infection so you may need further testing in the clinic. Any home testing kits are sent out in discrete unlabelled packaging.
Check your local sexual health clinic’s website or call them to find out about home testing kits. Pre-testing counselling is still important in most cases, so it will help to talk to a member of staff at the clinic first.
There are some situations where it is not appropriate to test at home without talking to the clinic including the following:
- If you are under 16 – you can still get tested, but the clinic will need to chat with you first.
- If you have active symptoms of an STI.
- If you are a man who has had anal sex with a man, without a condom in the last 72 hours.
- If you have recently been sexually assaulted.
There are some scenarios where post exposure prevention or prophylaxis to stop you contracting HIV is appropriate, but this has an urgent timeframe. PrEP HIV prevention is most effective within a few hours of exposure and clinics won’t normally prescribe it if 72 hours has passed. If you are worried that you may have been put at risk then contact your local sexual health clinic directly for advice.
Your sexual health clinic visit
When you visit a sexual health clinic, once you have checked in you will more than likely have to wait to see a nurse or doctor. Once you do get seen, you will be asked a few straightforward questions.
‘You will be asked about your sexual history, so try and be honest and answer every question. When you do get into the patient room, you will be asked to describe your symptoms,’ says Dr Morrison.
The questions the doctor or nurse will ask you will usually include:
- When you last had sex.
- If you’ve had unprotected sex.
- What your symptoms are (if any).
- If you think you might have a sexually transmitted infection.
- When your last period was and if you think you might be pregnant.
💡 If you can, come to your appointment armed with dates and details to allow for a more accurate diagnosis.
Your sexual health clinic examination
If you are concerned you might have an STI, you will undergo an examination. The nurse or doctor will explain what what will happen during the examination, but if you are unsure about anything, don’t be afraid to ask.
‘The nurse or doctor will probably ask to take a look at the problem area,’ says Dr Morrison. ‘Again, do not be nervous or embarrassed, as they would have seen dozens of people with a myriad of problems that day. They are not there to judge!’
Some STIs like herpes and genital warts can lay dormant in your body for a while.
‘Some reason people associate sexual health clinics with promiscuity when, in actual fact, many will contract STIs from long-term partners, as this is when you are most likely to not use a condom,’ adds Dr Morrison.
‘Remember, some STIs like herpes and genital warts (HPV) can lay dormant in your body for a while, meaning the infection might not show itself for years… or ever!’
How will you get tested?
When you visit a sexual health clinic you will be given an STI test. This will most likely include one of the following:
- A genital examination.
- A urine sample.
- A blood sample.
- Swabs from the urethra (where urine comes out).
- If you’re female, swabs from the vagina (you can usually do this yourself).
- A rectal swab if appropriate.
What will you get tested for?
Standard NHS sexual health screening usually involves a test for the following:
Testing for chlamydia usually only requires a urine sample – or a swab for a woman. Women who are not treated for chlamydia run the risk of developing pelvic inflammatory disease so it’s important that you get tested as soon as possible.
Testing for gonorrhoea usually only requires a urine sample – or a swab for a woman. If left untreated gonorrhoea can cause long-term complications including problems with infertility and increased risk of ectopic pregnancy, so if in doubt it’s important to get tested.
- Genital warts
Testing for genital warts usually only requires an examination as a doctor or nurse can often diagnose warts just by looking at them. To detect poorly visible genital warts they may also swab the area with acetic acid, which is painless.
Testing for syphilis requires a blood sample. Syphilis is likely to remain contagious for some time so do not resume sexual contact with anyone until your doctor has given you the go ahead.
Genital herpes is usually diagnosed by a doctor or nurse physically examining the affected skin. Tests for genital herpes aren’t usually done unless you have visible sores on your genitals or anus. In this case, a swab will be taken.
How to get your STI test results
If you are tested for an STI and the results are not available during your visit, the clinic will need to contact you in a week or two with your results. These will usually be given to you over the phone, by text, or in an unmarked letter.
You don’t have to give your real name if you don’t want to, but it will be confidential and your GP won’t be told about your visit without your permission. Many online tests now produce results within a week that are sent by text message to the patient.