You might think that sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs, are health issues that mostly teens and young adults have to worry about. But anyone of any age who’s not in a totally (and we mean totally) monogamous relationship where both partners have been tested for STDs is at risk.
Right now, there’s a dramatic surge in cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in the US, with all three hitting record numbers in 2016 and again in 2017. The number of people over age 45 getting these diseases more than doubled between 2012 and 2016, according to the latest record-keeping from the CDC. Better news is that HIV is on the decline—but it’s still a concern along with HPV, the human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer in women (and can cause other cancers in women and men), and trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted parasite that can increase your risk of getting an STD including HIV.
What in the world is going on? Put simply, Americans have become lax about practicing safe sex because of advances in the treatment of HIV—the fear of getting AIDs from HIV is not as strong as it used to be. We have, as a country, gone backwards in protecting ourselves. But here’s what hasn’t changed: STDs can still be dangerous or even deadly…you can never fully rid yourself of some of them once you have them…and most STDs don’t produce early symptoms, so you can’t “spot” warning signs in a potential partner any more than you can in yourself, leaving you open to infections.
If you’re at a time in your life when you don’t want to be in a serious relationship yet want to enjoy an active sex life, here’s how to keep yourself from becoming another STD statistic…
Keep practicing safer sex. Use a condom every time, especially if you don’t know for sure that your partner has been screened and is negative for all STDs. This also keeps your partner safe should you have an infection you’re unaware of. Condoms alone don’t do it, though—that’s why the term is “safer”—it’s not possible to protect yourself 100%.
Condom use is even lower among people engaging in oral sex than in purely genital contact. Since more and more STDs appear to be transmitted through oral contact, infections could be prevented with use of condoms and oral barriers or dams (placed over the vulva during oral sex).
Get regular sexual-health checkups. This includes a physical exam and screening tests. Advancing age might not make it feel any less awkward to talk to your doctor—primary, ob-gyn or urologist—about your private life, but he/she needs to know if you have new partners because this helps determine whether and when you should have STD tests.
This talk about your sex life need not be complex. Just two facts will tell your doctor whether additional history is needed: How many sexual partners you have had in the past six months…and whether you think that any of your partners currently has or might have had other partners in the past six months.
STD screening isn’t painful or complex. Women are tested for chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis and HPV with a vaginal swab or a urine sample. Men are tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia with a urine sample…trichomoniasis is harder to detect in men, but a urine sample or swab can be used if there’s a discharge. Both men and women are tested for syphilis and HIV with a blood sample.
If you and your partner decide to be exclusive—and avoid condoms and/or engage in oral sex in the process—you should both have a sexual-health checkup first. Remember that monogamy doesn’t confer protection from an STD that came from a former partner.