Medically reviewed by C. Fookes, BPharm Last updated on Jun 16, 2019.
Sexual health is an important part of our physical and mental health. When we talk about someone’s sexual health, we are not only referring to the presence of a disease or dysfunction, but also how they feel physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually about their own sexuality. Good sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships. Sexual experiences should be safe and pleasurable, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence. Good sexual health is about making choices around sex and sexuality that are right for your own body and mind.
Improving your own sexual health
There is still a lot of stigma around sex and many publications tend to focus on the “risks” involved with sex (for example with regards to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or unintended pregnancies) rather than emphasizing the fact that it is an important and natural part of life and human behavior. Good sexual health involves:
- Respecting and recognizing your own and others sexual rights
- Having access to accurate sexual health information, education, and care
- Taking steps to prevent unintended pregnancies and STIs or seeking immediate care and treatment if needed
- Experiencing sexual pleasure, satisfaction, and intimacy when or if desired
- Communicating honestly with sexual partners or healthcare providers about your own sexual health.
Are you ready for sex?
Only you can determine, in any relationship, if you are ready to have sex. Pay attention to your feelings; sex can bring about new reactions, emotions and possible risks every time you have sex with a new person. Communicate your thoughts, expectations, and boundaries about sex with your partner before you are in a sexual situation, and don’t be afraid to say “no”. Choosing to take part in one kind of sexual activity doesn’t automatically mean that you’re up for anything. If you don’t feel right about something, say so! Ask yourself these questions:
- How will I feel about myself after I have sex?
- Do I think having sex with this person, right now, is a good idea?
- Am I able to talk with this person about protecting myself against pregnancy or STIs?
If any of your answers are “Not good”, or “No”, then maybe sex currently isn’t a good idea for you. Also, if you are new to sexual activity, talk to someone you can trust about how to find and use have you spoken with someone you trust about the different methods of contraception that are available and how to find and use them correctly.
Risk factors for sexual health problems
People are at higher risk for sexual health issues if they:
- Take certain medications such as blood pressure medications, antidepressants (eg, SSRIs), antihistamines, narcotic analgesics, stimulants, or antipsychotics
- Drink alcohol
- Have a back injury
- Have heart disease or problems with blood circulation
- Have nerve damage (such as in spinal cord injuries)
- Have a medical condition such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, cancer, organ failure, or tertiary syphilis)
- Are suffering from anxiety or depression or other mental health conditions
- Have self-esteem issues
- Have thyroid, pituitary, or adrenal gland problems
- Have deficiencies in estrogen (women) or testosterone (men)
- Were born with a condition that affects their reproductive system
- Were traumatized or victimized at a young age, particularly if it was sexual in nature
- Are a man and their prostate gland is enlarged
- Are a woman who is going through menopause or postmenopausal.
Current relationship problems or excessive stress can also interfere with sexual function.
Women's sexual health
A woman’s reproductive system has both interior (inside the body) and exterior (outside the body) components. Interior components include the uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, cervix, and vagina. Exterior components include the labia (major and minor), clitoris, urethra, vaginal opening, and mons pubis.
These two halves are designed for reproduction, and they work together to enable sperm to fertilize an egg to produce a baby. If the egg is not fertilized within a menstrual cycle, the lining of the uterus sheds (which is when menstruation happens) and then a new cycle starts.
A woman’s sexual health needs change with age. Common concerns include:
- Birth control
- Fertility problems
- Labor and delivery
- Sexually transmitted infections
- Sexual desire or arousal disorders
- Other infections
- Menopause and vaginal dryness
- Painful intercourse
- Cervical cancer screening.
Men’s sexual health
Most of the male reproductive system is external, and include the penis, urethra, and testicles. These work together with the internal components, the epididymis, vas deferens, and accessory glands, to ensure sperm is kept at the correct temperature and can be propelled out of the testis into a woman’s reproductive system for reproduction.
Men’s sexual health needs also change with age, although less dramatically than women’s. Common concerns include:
- Fertility problems
- Sexually transmitted or other infections
- Erectile dysfunction; premature, delayed, or absence of ejaculation or other arousal disorders
- Prostate problems (benign prostatic hyperplasia or prostate cancer)
- Penile deformities (eg, Peyronie's disease).
Diagnosing sexual health issues
Your doctor will take a complete history and ask you what your symptoms are. They may ask you about psychological, physical, or spiritual aspects of your life that may have an impact on your sexual wellbeing.
Laboratory tests are usually only conducted if symptoms suggest a medical cause for the condition. A physical examination may be conducted depending on the sexual health issue being investigated. Physical examinations should include the whole body and not be limited to the reproductive system.
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if sexual problems persist and are a concern.
Treatment depends on the cause of sexual dysfunction. Medical causes that are reversible or treatable are usually managed medically or surgically. Counseling may be an option for some people. Examples of medications used for certain sexual health conditions include:
- Sexually transmitted infections: antibiotics or antivirals depending on the causative organism
- Erectile dysfunction: PDE-5 inhibitors such as sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), avanafil (Stendra), or vardenafil (Levitra, Staxyn); or alprostadil (Caverject, Edex)
- Fertility problems in women: eg, clomiphene
- Vaginal dryness: lubricating gels, hormone creams, hormone replacement therapy
- Dyspareunia (painful sex) in women: eg, ospemifene (Osphena)
- Hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD) in premenopausal women: eg, flibanserin (Addyi).
Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.