Four steps they need to take to stay safe
By J’Leise Sosa, MD
Forty-six percent of American high-schoolers have had sexual intercourse and one in four teens has a sexually transmitted disease — or STD.
For the third year in a row, sexually transmitted infection (or STI) rates have risen in the US. About 20 million new diagnoses of sexually transmitted infections were made in 2016 and young people account for a disproportionate number of these infections, the most common in this cohort being HPV.
Half of STI diagnoses occur in young men and women 15 to 24 years old.
This occurs even though young people make up only 25 percent of the sexually experienced population. The reason for high infection rates in young people despite being a relatively small percentage of the population could lie in the wide knowledge gap on STIs, how they are spread, their symptoms and how to get tested.
Closing that knowledge gap is an important step in empowering young people to take control of their sexual health.
Though most STIs can be easily treated, they can affect a person’s health for the rest of their life. STIs can lead to a web of other health issues. Having one STD can increase the risk of getting another STD.
For example, trichomonas infection can increase the risk of HIV infection; the human papilloma virus (HPV) can lead to penile cancer, cervical cancer and anal cancer; herpes infection can lead to a lifetime of recurring sores; hepatitis B could lead to liver cancer.
Though the rate of new infections appears to be equal in both young women and young men, young women tend the bear a greater burden of the health implications of STIs. Gonorrhea or chlamydia infection can lead to scarring in the fallopian tubes making it difficult or impossible to get pregnant in the future. These infections can also cause pelvic inflammatory disease which can lead to chronic pelvic pain and could require surgery to address complications. STI infection in pregnancy can cause preterm birth and low birth weight infants.
A young person who is having sex needs to be thinking about STIs. Being safe is crucial in reducing risk. The only way to avoid a sexually transmitted disease is to avoid sex whether it is oral, anal or vaginal. When one chooses to become sexually active, the following are methods to stay safe:
1. Get tested…regularly. Anyone under 25 years old should be screened for gonorrhea and chlamydia each year. You should also be offered HIV testing. Men who have sex with men should be tested more often — every three to six months. Ask your doctor to be tested at your annual visits. If you are ever concerned about an infection, get tested ASAP.
2. Get vaccinated…early. The CDC recommends that the HPV vaccine be given to 11-12-year-old boys and girls. If started before becoming sexually active, it can significantly reduce the risk of cervical cancer, penile cancer, anal cancer, and genital warts. It can still be effective even after starting sexual activity and can be given up to the age of 26.
3. Use condoms…every time. Yes, it could be a bore but unless you can be 100 percent sure that your partner is monogamous, condom use could save you from a lifetime of anxiety, doctors’ visits and medical problems related to STIs.
4. Talk… to your partner. A discussion about STIs and a plan to reduce risk should be had with every potential sex partner.
Some important things to note: Men often do not show signs of STIs. They therefore are more likely to transmit an infection without even knowing it. A lack of symptoms does not necessarily mean a lack of infection. See No. 1 above — get tested. Also, men are not routinely checked for some STIs. For example, there is no test to screen men for the HPV virus. The HPV vaccine is therefore very important in reducing risk. As a gynecologist, I often see women who test positive for trichomonas but tell me their partners had negative STI testing. These men have undiagnosed trichomonas because it is not routinely included in the male STI panel. It is important for men to ask specifically for trichomonas testing and for women to ask their partners about this.
Taking control of one’s sexual health is imperative.
In Buffalo, the Erie County Department of Health, Planned Parenthood, Kaleida Health Family Planning Center, and Evergreen Health all provide free or low cost STI testing. To find another STI clinic, go to: gettested.cdc.gov.
J’Leise Sosa is an OB-GYN providing services through General Physician, P.C. Women’s Health in Buffalo and East Aurora.