As STD cases rise, doctors remind patients of all ages to stay safe
Did you know?
- STDs impact young people the hardest. Half of all STDs are in people under 25 years old, although they represent only a quarter of people having sex.
- The only sure way to avoid STDs is to not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex. If you are sexually active, you can reduce your risk of getting an STD by using a condom.
- You can’t tell if someone has an STD just by looking at them. Many STDs don’t cause any symptoms, so the only way to know for sure is to get tested.
- STD tests aren’t always part of a regular doctor visit. Many doctors may not give you an HIV or STD test unless you ask for one.
- Even if you use birth control, you should still think about STD prevention. Birth control methods like the pill, patch, ring, and IUD are very effective at preventing pregnancy, but they do not protect against STDs and HIV.
New cases of three major sexually transmitted diseases are at record levels
By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by Kaiser Permanente
Sexually transmitted diseases are equal opportunity infections, which means physicians are trained to discuss risks with patients as cases of some common STDs hit record levels in the United States.
Nearly 2.3 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis were diagnosed in the United States in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It marks the fourth consecutive year of sharp increases of these STDs.
“Anyone can develop an STD through unprotected sex. Age is not a factor,” said Dr. Patricia Dietzgen, Family Medicine Physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Frisco Medical Offices. “Nowadays, talking to your doctor about an STD should not cause any embarrassment.
We are trained to discuss this and, in fact, inquiring about your possible STD exposure should be considered a routine question to be asked at your yearly physical.”
While STDs can affect anyone, certain infections are more common. Some are relatively minor and easy to treat, while others can cause serious problems and even lifelong effects.
Human Papilloma Virus, or HPV, is the most common STD. It can cause cervical cancer, genital cancer, anal cancer and genital warts. It can also cause throat cancer later in life, Dietzgen said.
“HPV can spread even if the individual is asymptomatic — meaning it is very easy to infect others. That’s why it is important to have protected sex,” Dietzgen said.
With no treatment for HPV, vaccination is one of the best safeguards. Many people can clear the virus on their own, but this can take several years and there can be a recurrence later in life, she said. The vaccine can be given up to age 26 in women and age 21 in men.
Chlamydia, a bacterial infection that affect genitals, reproductive organs, eyes and throat, is the next most common STD. It’s also easily spread because many patients are asymptomatic.
Gonorrhea, most common in 15- to- 25-year olds, can cause infertility and spread to the blood and joints. Treatment is available but symptoms can be life-long or have frequent recurrences throughout life, Dietzgen said.
Another STD making a resurgence is syphillis, which can be life-threatening if left untreated and can affect organs including the brain, Dietzgen said.
Finally, HIV and Trichomoniasis round out the list of common STDs. HIV, which can develop into AIDS, was once considered a death sentence but Dietzgen said it’s more readily treatable today. Trichomoniasis can lead to severe pelvic infections and infertility, but it treatable with antibiotics.
Myths about STDs
Anyone who is sexually active is at risk of contracting an STD. Dietzgen said myths include thinking STDs are only for young people, that you can’t catch or pass an STD without symptoms present, or that having sex in a hot tub or chlorinated pool prevents the spread of STDs. These are all false.
“You can still catch an STD even in a hot tub or chlorinated pool if you do not use protection,” she said. “You can develop the same STD multiple times, and even if your partner is asymptomatic, they may still pass on an STD.”
Natural condoms are not considered to be as safe as latex or polyurethane, Dietzgen added.
And because routine medical checkups don’t always include STD testing, you can’t assume you’ve been tested. The CDC recommends asking your medical provider which STDs you should be tested for, and to talk to your partner about the last time he or she was tested.
“These conversations may seem hard to have, but open communication with your partner is essential to staying healthy and stopping the spread of STDs,” reports the CDC. “These conversations may also bring you closer together.”