Sexual health clinics
Sexual health clinics are sometimes known as genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics. They are usually located at a hospital or as part of another health centre and provide a range of sexual health services including:
- contraception and contraception advice
- emergency contraception and emergency contraception advice
- testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhoea, genital warts and genital herpes
- testing and counselling for HIV and AIDS
- help if you have been sexually assaulted
- pregnancy and abortion advice
- help and advice for people who are having problems with their sex life
What is genitourinary medicine?
Genitourinary medicine (GUM) deals with the male and female sexual organs and the urinary system, which produces, stores and removes urine from the body.
As well as testing for and treating STIs, GUM also investigates and treats urinary tract infections (UTIs). Examples of UTIs include:
- cystitis - a bladder infection which can cause pain, burning or stinging when passing urine
- urethritis - inflammation of the urethra (the tube through which urine passes) that is usually caused by an infection; symptoms include pain around the pelvis in women and a frequent need to pass urine in men
Other genital infections that are treated at GUM clinics include:
- thrush (candida) - a fungal infection that can occur in both males and females; it can cause soreness, itching and discomfort in the vulva (the female external sexual organs), and red skin and swelling of the head of the penis in males (see Thrush - men for more information).
- bacterial vaginosis (BV) - is an imbalance in the normal levels of bacteria that are found in a women's vagina; it can cause an abnormal discharge and an unpleasant odour.
How it works
If you need advice and support with a sexual health matter, or if you have a problem with your urinary system, you can either see your GP or make an appointment to visit your local sexual health clinic.
Referrals and self-referrals
If your GP thinks that you have a genitourinary infection, they may refer you to a genitourinary specialist at a sexual health clinic so that you can be tested.
As well as being referred by your GP, you can also make an appointment to visit a sexual health clinic without a referral. At certain times, some genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics also operate as walk-in centres, where you can turn up and wait without needing to make a prior appointment.
It is important to remember that many STIs do not have any noticeable symptoms. Therefore, it is a good idea for you and your partner to be tested for STIs before you start a new sexual relationship. You may also want to have a check-up before trying for a baby.
You can be tested for STIs at any GUM clinic. Most GUM clinics carry out general routine sexual health screenings, which include tests for a range of STIs.
See Sexual health clinics - what happens for more information about routine screenings.
All information regarding your visit to the sexual health clinic will be treated confidentially. This means that your personal details and any information about the tests or treatments you have received will not be shared with anyone outside the sexual health service without your permission. This includes your GP.
If you are under 16 years of age, your details will still be treated confidentially and no one in your household will be contacted without your permission.
Other services may need to be contacted if healthcare professionals at the sexual health clinic believe that you or another person is at risk of harm, such as physical or sexual abuse. However, if this is the case, it will be discussed with you during your visit to the sexual health clinic.
Sexual health services
Sexual health services are free and available to everyone regardless of sex, age, ethnic origin and sexual orientation.
If you have a disability and you have special requirements, or if English is not your first language, you should contact the sexual health clinic in advance to discuss your requirements. Appropriate arrangements can be made for you.
If you are unable to get to the clinic, it may be possible for someone to visit you at home.
When you visit a sexual health clinic for the first time you will usually be asked to fill in a form with your name and contact details. You do not have to give your real name or tell staff who your GP is if you do not want to.
The type of health professional that you see will depend on the reason you are visiting the clinic. If you need to be tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), you may need to provide a urine or blood sample.
If you are seeking advice about contraception you will be asked about your medical and sexual history.
There are several different types of contraception, and each type works in a different way. Barrier methods of contraception, such as condoms, create a physical barrier against sperm.
Women can use hormonal methods of contraception, such as the contraceptive pill. They can also use mechanical contraceptive devices, such as an intra-uterine device (IUD), which is placed in the womb (uterus). For more information about IUDs, see below.
If you decide to use a mechanical method of contraception, such as an IUD, you may need to have an internal examination and be tested for STIs.
See Useful links for more about contraception.
Most sexual health clinics will be able to provide you with advice about emergency contraception. If you have had unprotected sex (sex without using contraception), or if the contraception that you were using failed, emergency contraception can be used to prevent pregnancy.
There are two types of emergency contraception: the emergency contraceptive pill and the IUD.
- The emergency contraceptive pill can be taken up to three days (72 hours) after sex. If it is taken within 24 hours, it is 95% effective.
- An IUD is a small, rigid T-shaped contraceptive device that is fitted inside the womb (uterus) by a nurse or doctor within five days of having unprotected sex. It works by stopping sperm reaching an egg and is almost 100% effective.
See Useful links for further information about emergency contraception.
Sexually transmitted infections
If you are visiting a sexual health clinic to be tested for STIs, you will be asked a number of questions about your sex life. This might be embarrassing for you at first, but you need to answer honestly in order to ensure that you receive the most appropriate advice and treatment.
If you are diagnosed with an STI it is very important that your current sexual partner, and some, or all, of your previous sexual partners, is informed as soon as possible. The number of sexual partners that need to be contacted will depend on the type of STI you have.
If you have an STI, your partner (and previous partners) will need to be tested and, if necessary, treated in order to prevent the infection being passed on to anyone else.
Staff at the sexual health clinic will be able to advise you about the sexual partners who will need to be contacted, and may be able to contact them on your behalf. If you wish, your anonymity will be protected when contacting your previous sexual partners.
See Useful links to find out more about STIs and for further information about testing.
HIV and AIDS
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a sexually transmitted virus that attacks the body's immune system. A healthy immune system provides the body with a natural defence against disease and infection.
Over time, HIV destroys the cells that are responsible for fighting infection, leaving you with a high risk of developing other diseases or infections, such as cancer.
If you are visiting a sexual health clinic to be tested for HIV, you will be asked a series of questions about your symptoms and medical history. The HIV test looks for antibodies to HIV.
It is usually recommended that you wait 12 weeks after having unprotected sex before having the HIV test. This is because the body can take a while to develop antibodies to HIV. Waiting will ensure that the test results are reliable.
See Useful links for more about HIV and AIDS.
If you have had a test for a sexually transmitted infection (STI), you may be informed of the result straight away. However, you may have to wait several weeks for the results of some tests.
Getting your test results
Staff at the sexual health clinic will ask for your permission before phoning you with your results, or they may send them to you in an unmarked envelope. Alternatively, you may be asked to come into the clinic to get your test results and to talk to an adviser. This will be the case if you are diagnosed with HIV.
Treatment and advice
If your test results show that you have an STI, a healthcare professional at the clinic will be able to discuss your results with you and advise you about possible treatment options.
Many STIs can be treated using antibiotics. Others, such as HIV, are not curable. If you have HIV, staff at the clinic will arrange an appointment for you with a counsellor, as well as advising you about treatments to control the condition and slow its progression.
Preventing sexually transmitted infections
The best way to protect yourself from getting an STI, including HIV, is to practise safe sex. When having sex, including oral and anal sex, always use a condom.
If you are diagnosed with an STI, make sure you follow the advice of the healthcare professional at the clinic with regards to having sex while you are being treated.
It is a crime knowingly to infect someone with HIV.
See Useful links for further information about a wide range of sexual health matters and to find your nearest sexual health or genito-urinary medicine(GUM) clinic.
- Antibiotics are medicines that can be used to treat infections caused by micro-organisms, usually bacteria or fungi. Amoxicillin, streptomycin and erythromycin are examples of antibiotics.