The global pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of daily life, from grocery runs to where and how people go to work. But there’s one major thing COVID-19 has affected that isn’t getting a lot of attention: sexual health.
“There’s no question that people have been avoiding going to the doctor for routine stuff, like STI screening and contraception,” Dr. Lauren Streicher, a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s too soon to know if we’re going to see an uptick in STIs and pregnancies related to this, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this happened.”
Sexual health needs haven’t stopped because of the pandemic
People still need to undergo testing for sexually transmissible infections (STIs), receive regular sexual health and reproductive checkups and get the vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV), says Leslie Kantor, professor and chair of the Rutgers Department of Urban Global Public Health. However, she says, in some cases access may have changed. “Depending on what someone needs, their access might be worse or conceivably better in some places because of telemedicine,” Kantor says. Many people are also hesitant to go to the doctor over COVID-19 fears, and that can have serious implications for sexual health, she says.
Experts say fears around the virus are a big issue for sexual health
Those fears have manifested in a slew of different ways, and all of them have the potential to influence sexual health.
When the pandemic first hit, some ob-gyn offices and sexual health clinics briefly shuttered or only offered telehealth services to allow doctors and administrators time to adjust for new protocols. Even though most reopened soon after, many patients are still wary of going to the doctor over fears of contracting the virus.
“The risk of getting COVID-19 from coming to a doctor that’s doing everything right is slim to none.” Dr. Lauren Streicher, Northwestern University
Pandemic fears have impacted vaccinations, too
Lowered vaccination rates “have been a big problem,” for sexual health, says Kantor. “Vaccination for everyone over the age of two has gone way down, and that includes the HPV vaccine,” she says. Her concern: That could eventually lead to an uptick in several forms of cancer that are associated with HPV, including cervical cancer, as well as cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, and oropharynx.
Streicher stresses that doctor’s offices are “trying really hard” to make their facilities safe and inviting for patients. “We are so careful,” she says. “The risk of getting COVID-19 from coming to a doctor that’s doing everything right is slim to none.”
Women need to talk to their doctors about birth control
Birth control is often discussed during a woman’s annual exam, or during a specific appointment—and many of those aren’t happening right now due to patient fears about the virus, Streicher says.
But Kantor says there are even options for patients who have steered clear of seeking care over fears of the virus. “A lot of birth control methods can be prescribed through telemedicine,” she points out.
STI screening may be affected
When people have sex, there’s still a risk of contracting an STI, Streicher points out. If you have symptoms of an STI, you may also be able to consult with your provider over telemedicine before getting referred for testing, says Streicher. From there, she says, “labs can be done as a quick and convenient process.”
“Also, telemedicine is very much up and running,”says Kantor. “That may give some people access to sexual and reproductive healthcare in any place they prefer.”
While social distancing practices and fears over the virus may make it more difficult for some single people to have sex, overall, “people are still going to be having sex,” says Streicher. That’s true for couples as well, she says, noting that there’s “no reason not to have sexual activity with an established partner.”
Here are some best practices to keep in mind if you’re single and sexually active
There have been some reports of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, being detected in the vagina, but it’s “very rare,” Streicher says. “The major risk with having sexual activity is the respiratory stuff—breathing on someone,” she says. “It’s hard to get close enough to have sex without respiratory contacts, but if you’re both wearing masks all the time and it’s a new partner, the actual act of having intercourse is probably OK.”
You can also talk to your sexual partner about what COVID-19 prevention methods they’ve taken and if they’ve been tested for the virus recently. However, Streicher says, “you definitely are taking a chance.”
Ultimately, if it’s time for you to get routine sexual health care, or you have a concern that needs to be addressed but are worried about going to a doctor’s office, Streicher recommends calling your provider to see what options are available. Many are willing to work with patients right now to try to help find a process that’s most comfortable for them.