Long term health conditions

Boyfriend, girlfriend and sex

Living with a long-term condition doesn't have to be a problem when it comes to sex and relationships. Many of the people we talked to said that they had formed long lasting and intimate relationships. Some people's condition made it hard to meet new people and difficult to know when (or if) to tell them about their condition. One man said that his confidence has been affected by his arthritis and that he prefers the company of those that he already knows rather than having to meet new people. Some young people also faced practical issues about getting tired, lacking confidence, being uncomfortable sitting still for a long time or wanting, and having to avoid alcohol or smoky atmospheres (also see 'Going out').

Many teenagers are self-conscious about their appearance as well as reluctant to tell others about their condition. One girl told us that when she was 17 she "wouldn't have dared tell someone I had scoliosis. I wouldn't have dared go out if I had a spot!" 

Many went through a phase of being very critical of their bodies and self-conscious about how they were different from other young people. This was particularly true when they were feeling ill or having medical procedures that altered their bodies. One young woman who had a hip replacement in her late teens told us that she felt different from other women of her own age. But she soon realised that her experience of her condition had made her stronger and more confident in herself. 

Some young people with life-limiting conditions deliberately avoided serious relationships. A young woman with cystic fibrosis said that she had been partly protecting herself when she said she didn't want a serious relationship. She hadn't believed that anyone would want to be involved with her.

Young people who we talked to who'd had a serious relationship said they've been honest about their condition and that their boyfriend or girlfriend had accepted their illness and been understanding. Some said that if someone couldn't accept them as they were, they probably weren't worth going out with anyway. 

It can be difficult to know when to tell someone new about the condition. Several suggested that you shouldn't feel you have to blurt it out to everyone you meet but you should probably tell if the relationship starts getting serious. Some told us that they do it at the very beginning of any relationship, while others preferred to wait until they knew the person a bit better. In some cases people had known each other before they started going out together so hadn't needed to explain about their medical condition. A young man who is living with HIV explained that he feels that he absolutely must tell others at an early stage. 

Some of those who were diagnosed when they were older were in a relationship at the time. This could put a strain on the relationship. If the couple had only recently started dating, they may not know each other well enough to support and rely on one another. A young woman recently diagnosed with type 1 diabetes said that she preferred to talk about her reactions to the diagnosis with her ex boyfriends because they knew her better than the boyfriend she was presently seeing. 

Sometimes people might feel so ill, or be in such pain, that the very idea of sex is unappealing. This can obviously cause a strain on some relationships. A young woman described the difficulty she and her partner had after her hip operation.

People with epilepsy often worry that they might have a seizure (or fit) while they are having sex. Doctors and nurses were often reassuring that it was unlikely to happen. Sometimes it does happen and young people's reactions to it happening seem to be related to how much information they have about their condition, how serious the relationship is and how prepared they are to explain things to their partner. One young woman said that it has happened to her twice. The first time when she was a teenager and had been unsure about how to deal with such a situation. The second time was with her current boyfriend when she felt more in control of her condition. 

A young man with HIV pointed out that people often need sexual health services outside of the 9-5 clinic hours. He also thinks they often seem impersonal and unfriendly to young people.

Young people with health problems have the same need for sexual health services as other young people. (Also see 'Contraception and pregnancy' and our Sexual Health section.)

Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated April 2010.


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