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Sexually transmitted infections aren’t a topic anyone really wants to discuss. Even so, acknowledging the risks of acquiring or passing on STIs is a necessary part of practicing safe sex. There are many reasons why older people are at an increased risk of acquiring STIs. Cultural biases, age-related health conditions, and unprotected sex are just a few reasons older adults may find themselves at a greater risk of developing sexually transmitted infections. Though for many, STIs may result in few symptoms and can be easily treated, others may develop serious conditions as a result of sexual infections. Certain infections, such as the human papillomavirus infection (HPV), are associated with an increased risk of developing many different types of cancer. For these reasons, it is important to prevent the spread of STIs and, when necessary, seek out treatment to prevent serious health risks for yourself and your sexual partners.
Why are older adults at an increased risk of transmitting STIs? What can you do to prevent the spread? Read on to get informed about STI prevention and treatment.
STIs: Preventing Transmission
Sexually transmitted infections are usually passed on via unprotected sex (sex without a condom). This includes vaginal, anal, and oral sex. It doesn’t matter what gender you or your sexual partner are; genital contact, or even the sharing of sex toys, can put you at risk of getting an STI. The proper use of condoms is one of the most reliable ways to prevent the spread of STIs. Both male and female condoms are highly effective in reducing STI transmission. Traditional male condoms have been proven to reduce HIV risk by 98.5% and the risk of acquiring other STIs by up to 75%. Female condoms offer nearly identical protection rates. Though no form of protection eliminates one's risk of contracting an STI, condom use is by far the simplest and most effective form of STI prevention. Though seniors may rightfully feel that protection is no longer required to prevent pregnancy, the risk of spreading STIs remains consistent at any age. Though you may want to believe that you and your partner are not at risk of transmitting STIs to one another, anyone who has ever had unprotected sex may be an unknowing STI carrier. Many adults are asymptomatic STI carriers and may go years without knowing that they have an infection. For this reason, it is important for you and your sexual partners to get tested and practice safe sex.
Though female condoms are not as widely available as traditional condoms, this form of protection may be worth considering for senior couples. Whereas male condoms may be more challenging to apply for older men, who may take longer to achieve full erections, female condoms can be inserted in advance, allowing couples to swiftly proceed with safe sexual intercourse.
Some forms of STIs, such as herpes, HPV, and syphilis, are spread via skin-to-skin contact, and cannot necessarily be prevented by condom use alone. For this reason, it is important to get STI tests if you are sexually active. You may be an asymptomatic carrier and not know it.
If you have any symptoms, such as pain, swelling, itching, or burning sensations, or notice bumps, rashes, or sores near your genitals or mouth, talk to your doctor about getting an STI test. Unusual discharge, genital bleeding, or pain while urinating may also be symptoms of an STI or other genital condition, such as a yeast infection or UTI. Any symptoms are worth discussing with your doctor. As STIs do not usually go away on their own, diagnosis and treatment is crucial for preventing spread and long-term symptoms.
Seniors At Risk: A Systematically Ignored Problem
Unfortunately, seniors may find that pertinent questions related to STIs are ignored by their healthcare providers. This is often due to biases in the medical community. In many cases, tests like HIV screenings and Pap smears are only regularly administered to adults under the age of 65, putting older adults at risk of remaining undiagnosed and untreated. A 2017 study revealed that approximately 40% of adults between the ages of 65 and 80 remained sexually active; for those in relationships, this rate rose to 54%. Naturally, this should be taken into account by doctors and gynecologists. Education about STIs often focuses on teens and young adults, though seniors are just as much at risk as their more youthful counterparts. In fact, research shows that, between 2014 and 2017, diagnosis rates for gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, herpes simplex, and hepatitis B rose by 23% in American patients over the age of 60! Amongst the rest of the population, rates rose just 11%. Until healthcare providers begin screening seniors more thoroughly, it may remain up to seniors to become more proactive regarding their sexual health. If you are sexually active, be sure to talk to your doctor about any screening and tests that may be necessary to protect your health.
Additional Risk Factors for Older Adults
In addition to reduced screening in seniors, there are a handful of additional risk factors putting seniors at a greater risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections. In post-menopausal women, hormonal changes, as well as physical changes in the body, can make it easier to contract STIs. Following menopause, the vaginal tissue thins and natural lubrication decreases, increasing the risk of micro-tears and abrasions in the vaginal area. This can allow for infectious agents to enter the body more easily. With age, the immune system also becomes less robust, heightening the risk of contracting all forms of infectious diseases. Older adults are also more likely to take medications that may alter the body and its microbiome. Estrogen-blocking medications like aromatase inhibitors, for instance, can also cause thinning of the vaginal tissue. Other medications can reduce the prevalence of good bacteria in the body, making it more likely that STIs will take hold, cause uncomfortable symptoms. When in doubt, talk to your doctor about the medications you are taking, and ask about the ways in which they might affect your sexual health. If you’d rather do your research in private, online resources may also aid you in becoming more informed about your STI risk and the ways in which you can better protect your health.
It is important to remember that STIs are common. Developing a sexually transmitted infection is no reason to feel ashamed. Almost all sexually transmitted infections can be effectively treated, and even chronic conditions like HIV can be successfully managed with modern medical treatment. Starting a dialogue with your healthcare provider is the best step you can take to ensure you remain healthy and STI-free. The next time you’re in for a check-up, mention your sexual health and ask for an STI test if you’re sexually active. Knowing that you’re STI-free will allow you to relax and pursue safe sex in your future relationships with greater peace of mind.
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