Teach Me

My Sexual Health: Important Screenings for Every Phase of Life

Let’s talk about sex. No, really, let’s discuss.

It may be a taboo subject, but sexual health affects everyone and is a healthy part of our physical, emotional, mental and social well-being. 

Whether you are a young adult exploring your sexuality or a senior adult looking to maintain intimacy in your “golden years,” sexual health is crucial for everyone at every age. 

Yet, the biggest issue among all people is talking about it – with a sexual partner and even with their health care provider. 

Sexual health’s biggest issue

Tiptoeing around your sexual health – whether it’s sexually transmitted infections (STIs), birth control, sexual orientation or gender identity – is a missed opportunity. 

“Many patients are afraid or embarrassed to ask questions about their sexual health, but it’s important that they feel comfortable asking questions about their bodies and sex life so they can get the most complete care,” said Sarah L. Edgerton, DO, an OBGYN with Banner Health. 

Talking about your sexual health with your provider doesn’t have to be awkward. Your provider wants to help you stay healthy and happy. 

“There is empowerment that comes with understanding how our bodies work and how best to keep ourselves safe and healthy,” Dr. Edgerton said. “Sexual orientation and gender identity are an important part of this discussion. It's also important that medical offices make every effort to help LGBTQ+ patients feel comfortable expressing their sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Health at every age and stage

Your sexual health is a lifelong journey that requires some self-care along the way. Don’t let fear of discussing s-e-x hold you back from getting the care you deserve.

Read on to understand how to prioritize your sexual health in your 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond.

Your late teens and 20s.

For people in this age group, here are some things to focus on:

STI testing and birth control

“Pregnancy prevention, or birth control options and STI testing are common topics I encounter in the office with patients in their teenage years or 20s,” Dr. Edgerton said. “Contraception (birth control) is very important, but many forms don’t protect against STIs.”

Preventive STI testing and condom use can prevent STIs like genital herpes, syphilis, chlamydia and other infectious diseases very effectively. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV at least once as part of routine health care. People with certain risk factors should be testing more frequently.

It’s important to know that there are many forms of birth control. Some have hormones, and some do not. Some may lighten or stop periods, and some do not. Some are designed for extended use, and some are for short-term use. 

Talk to your health care provider about the various options available, and together as a team, you can make the right choice for you.

Cervical cancer screenings

Cervical cancer screenings are recommended starting at age 21 for all patients who have a cervix (regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity). Pap tests are recommended every three years until the age of 30. After age 30, pap tests are recommended every five years.

“It’s important we remember that we can catch pre-cancerous changes to the cervix long before those changes become cancer if routine cervical cancer screening is followed,” Dr. Edgerton said.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination

The HPV vaccination series is recommended for everyone between 9 and 26. It protects against many HPV-related conditions, including cervical cancer. 

“This is because the HPV virus can cause pre-cancerous and cancerous changes to the cervix over time,” Dr. Edgerton said. “HPV is also a cause of genital warts, genital cancers, anal cancer and head and neck cancers.”

Your 30s

For people in this age group, here are some things to focus on:

  • Fertility management and pregnancy prevention 
  • Continued STI and HIV testing if you are sexually active, once a year
  • Continued cervical cancer screenings every five years

A common topic of discussion during your 30s is your fertility options or reproductive plans. You and your provider may discuss fertility treatments or the possibility of freezing eggs, embryos or sperm. Or you may choose not to have children and can discuss the pros and cons of contraception options.

Your provider may also screen for other health conditions, like anxiety and depression, high blood pressure and signs of domestic violence.

Your 40s

For people in this age group, here are some things to focus on:

Changes in libido

In general, sex drive decreases gradually as you age. It isn’t uncommon for this to start in your 40s and 50s. 

If you have a vagina, you might start noticing vaginal dryness, making sex uncomfortable. Your period may become irregular, heavier or lighter in flow and more painful. 

“A common topic for patients in their 40s is menstrual cycle control for painful or heavy periods,” Dr. Edgerton said. “There are many options to treat bothersome periods, both hormonal and non-hormonal.”

Health issues like diabetes and obesity may also impact your sex drive and satisfaction.

Bring your concerns up to your health care provider so that they can offer help and guidance. The good news is that you can do things to help with your menstrual cycle and make intimacy and sexual activity satisfying.

Breast cancer and colorectal cancer screenings

Annual mammograms start at age 40. However, start screening earlier if you have a close family member who was diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age.

Discuss with your provider scheduling your first colonoscopy at age 45. However, discuss screening earlier if you have a parent or sibling who was diagnosed with colon cancer at a young age.

Maintaining sexual health after 50

For people in this age group, here are some things to focus on:

  • Menopause
  • Erectile dysfunction (ED)
  • Prostate cancer screening
  • Continued breast cancer and colorectal cancer screenings
  • For people in non-monogamous relationships, continued STI and HIV testing if you are sexually active, once a year
  • Continued cervical cancer screenings every five years

The changes you undergo in the aging process can continue to impact your sexual health, making sex less enjoyable and desirable. 

You may experience significant changes before, during and after menopause, such as weight gain, hot flashes and vaginal dryness. You may notice changes to your prostate and could experience erectile dysfunction.

Beyond natural changes, lifestyle factors and medical conditions can also affect sexual health. These include smoking, heart disease, depression and diabetes. Medications can also decrease your libido.

Whether you have low libido, erectile dysfunction or vaginal dryness, you’re not alone. There are likely medications and treatments your provider can recommend to help with symptoms and improve your sexual health.

“And don’t be afraid to discuss sex with your partner,” Dr. Edgerton said. “Good communication is important in a healthy relationship and an active, satisfying sex life.”


Sexual health is more than just having sex. It’s about taking care of your physical, emotional, mental and social well-being at any age and in every relationship.

While your sex life is uniquely yours, there are issues we all face at some point in our lives. Don’t go through this journey alone.

Whether it’s your provider or sexual partner, communication is key to sexual health. Honor your concerns and desires, and find someone who can help you be your healthiest self at every age.

To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com. 

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