Nurses too embarrassed to deal with patients suffering from sexual health problems have been issued with guidelines to overcome their shyness.

The initiative is to help them to tackle what is perceived as one of the last taboos among carers: dealing with patients' sexuality and sexual health.

Despite the reputation of nurses as down-to-earth carers unfazed by their daily routine, the true picture shows that at least some of them are too shy to confront patients' sexual problems. But now nurses have been urged to seek training or help from senior staff in a report by the Royal College of Nursing.

A variety of illnesses can have a disastrous, knock-on effect on patients' sex lives. Some nurses, according to the new report, are just too shy to talk about those side-effects and ignore the problem, leaving patients confused and distraught. Others are all too willing to attach stereotypes to patients, such as assuming older women are not sexually active, and therefore refuse to acknowledge a sexual problem may even exist.

RCN sexual health adviser Steve Jamieson said: "Sexual health and sexuality is always going to be a sensitive issue but that's even more reason not to ignore it in healthcare. Our guidance can't - and doesn't - say what to do in every circumstance but it does get the issue out in the open."

The guidelines, in "Sexuality and Sexual Health in Nursing Practice", were compiled with the help of outside agencies including Mencap and the Family Planning Association.

Paula Doran of the FPA, said: "Every day we hear from people whose sexuality and sexual health needs have been badly managed or ignored. Anyone who requires healthcare, from a travel clinic appointment to palliative care, may also have needs relating to their sexuality.

"These guidelines should give nurses the confidence to engage with sexuality and sexual health issues as a vital aspect of holistic care."

Sally Davis, a senior lecturer in nursing who helped to draw up the guidelines, said: "This is a very difficult area for people to talk about and nurses have had no training in dealing with it."