You’re Never too Old to Get an STD
Sex. A taboo topic, but an intrinsic part of human nature. Even less discussed than sex is the prevalence—not to mention the complexities—of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Every day, one million sexually transmitted infections are spread—a number that continues to increase, especially in the aging population. That’s right: In 2016, almost 83K cases of gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia were reported by adults over the age of 45 in the United States, according to AARP.
To help us learn more about STDs in adulthood and beyond, we spoke with Robyn B. Faye, MD, a certified sex counselor and OB/GYN at Abington – Jefferson Health.
Let’s Have “The Talk”
For adults and the aging population engaging in sexual activity, it’s important to know one thing: STDs do not discriminate based on age.
“The most common STDs we see in people of advanced ages are herpes and the human papillomavirus (HPV),” says Dr. Faye. “These STDs are most prevalent because they can be carried silently. Someone can have this condition—or have had it since their teenage years—not know it and give it to their partner. As opposed to more symptomatic STDs like chlamydia and gonorrhea, which you notice within a few days of contracting, these silent STDs can run rampant.”
STD symptoms and screenings look the same throughout all stages of life. No matter your age, STDs can be identified through presenting symptoms or regular screenings with your healthcare team. It is important to remember that after a certain age, many healthcare professionals no longer ask questions about sex or STD testing, which is why communication is key. If you want to be tested, or if you notice a concerning symptom, you must mention it to your healthcare provider.
“We recommend stopping Pap smears at the age of 65, but in patients younger than 65 who have an abnormal Pap smear, we will ask them to come in so we can take a culture sample. Whether you are 17 or 62, STDs present the same no matter what age you are,” says Dr. Faye. “Sexually active adults shouldn’t fear STDs, but be willing to have open and honest conversations with their partners and healthcare team.”
The Path to a Happy and Healthy Sex Life
When we think of STDs, we typically think of young, active adults who have recently entered the world of intimate relationships. But the truth is, STDs exist across all ages and all relationships—which is why adults cannot let their guard down with new or additional sexual partners.
“Let’s take a look at an adult who has been out of the dating world for a while, but recently re-joined due to divorce or because a partner has passed. For people with ovaries who engage in sexual activity, they need to be reminded they are now in the dating world. They may no longer need birth control, but they still need protection against STDs,” says Dr. Faye. “That’s when the conversation leads to the historically unwanted discussion: Asking your partner to use protection. You only get one body, so do not be afraid to ask your sexual partner the questions you need to feel safe and healthy. It is your body, your health and your life.”
STDs exist beyond the heteronormative construct of sexual relationships. No matter the gender or sexual orientation of your partner, it is important to use protection and have open communication.
“Let’s look at the risks of not being vigilant with your sexual healthcare plan: Gonorrhea can cause intense pelvic pain, herpes sticks around forever, HPV causes cancer, and hepatitis is a serious health problem. Safe sex means more than avoiding pregnancy. It’s all about creating safe boundaries so that you—and your partner—can have a pleasurable, STD-free life,” says Dr. Faye.
Tips for Engaging in Protected Sex:
- For sharing toys: Clean after each use
- For safe penetrative sex: Use a male or female condom
- For safe oral sex: Use a dental dam, latex panty liners or condom
- For having the conversation about protection: Try leading with, “I saw a few articles recently about STDs that really got me thinking. If you feel comfortable, do you think we could have a conversation about how to keep each other healthy moving forward?” Be sure to ask:
- Have you been tested?
- Can we share the results?
- Could we go together to get tested?