Teens, Young Adults Account for Half of New STD Cases - Nemours Blog


Teens, Young Adults Account for Half of New STD Cases

Teens, Young Adults Account for Half of New STD Cases, by Robyn Miller, MD, Powered by Nemours Children's Health System

It’s enough to send parents running to lock their teens in their bedrooms: About 10 million 15- to 24-year-olds have a sexually transmitted disease (STD) — that’s half of the new STD cases reported each year.

And in 2015, there were more STDs reported than ever. The top three most commonly reported STDs — chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis — were all at an all-time high, according to the annual STD surveillance report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). STDs are now more commonly referred to by the medical community as “sexually transmitted infections” or “STIs.”

The Repercussions of Sex

Before teens and young adults make that very adult decision to become sexually active, they need to understand that it can come with many very adult consequences, too.

Pregnancy is often the biggest concern for sex-curious teens. Even though U.S. teen birth rates are at an historic low, about 250,000 babies are born to 15- to 19-year-old moms every year. Of course, getting pregnant isn’t the only risk that sexually active teens need to be worried about. They should understand that choosing to be intimate (even if they don’t “go all the way”) also puts them at great risk for STIs — some of which (like AIDS, HPV, and genital herpes) could stay with them for life.

Although AIDS gets far less media attention than it did in decades past, an estimated 36.7 million people worldwide are living with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS). And about 1.1 million die every year from AIDS-related illnesses. In the U.S., teens and young adults (ages 13–24) made up about 22% of all new HIV diagnoses in 2014.

And HPV infection (short for “human papillomavirus”) is the leading cause of cervical cancer and genital warts, affecting more than half of sexually active people at some point in their lives — nearly 7 million each year.

These kinds of staggering statistics are why it’s so crucial for parents to talk to kids and teens about not only sex, but STIs — preferably before they become sexually active.

FAQs: Talking to Your Teens About STIs

STIs can be a frightening, confusing, and embarrassing subject. But it may help make potentially uncomfortable discussions a little easier if you’re informed by reading up on STI transmission and prevention. You’ll need to correct — and certainly not add to — any misinformation. Plus, being familiar with the topic will likely make you feel more confident and at ease.

So, here are some things your kids might ask:

How do people get STIs?

They aren’t just transmitted through vaginal sex. These diseases can also be spread from one person to another during other types of sex. Of course, you’ll need to decide whether and how you’ll discuss these with your kids, depending on their age and maturity level.

Can you tell that someone has an STI just by looking at them?

People can become infected the first time they have unprotected sex — and their sexual partners may not even know that they’re infected themselves. That’s because although some people with certain kinds of STIs may have visible signs around the genitals, some may have few (as with chlamydia), and others may have no signs at all. In fact, all STIs (especially herpes) can be asymptomatic (i.e., there are no symptoms) and may not be visible — but can still be transmitted. Most of the time, there’s no way to look at people fully dressed and know they have an STI.

How are STIs treated?

Some STIs (like chlamydia and gonorrhea) can be treated with antibiotics. But Neisseria gonorrhoeae, the bacterium that causes gonorrhea, is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it. And some infections — like herpes and HIV — have no cure.

How can someone avoid getting an STI?

The only sure way to remain STI-free is to not have sex or intimate contact with anyone outside of a committed, monogamous relationship, like marriage. But anyone who’s having sex should always use a latex condom, preferably one with a spermicidal foam, cream, or jelly that contains nonoxynol-9. However, no method can guarantee prevention of all STIs. And birth control methods — like the patch, pill, or IUD (intrauterine device) — provide no STI protection at all.

How do you find out if you have an STI?

Emphasize that you should never try to diagnose or, worse, treat yourself for something you think you might have, even if you’re embarrassed to talk about it with a health care provider. Make sure your kids know that if they see anything anywhere on their bodies that doesn’t look quite right or if they’re feeling sick in any way, they need to tell you (or their doctor or school nurse) so you can find out what’s going on.

Broaching the Sensitive STI (STD) Subject

Once teens are (or even might be) sexually active, it’s important for them to get regular full physical exams — which can include screening for STIs, the HPV vaccine, and/or a pelvic exam/pap smear (for girls). Their doctor can share information and help answer any questions.

However and whenever you opt to bring up STIs at home, try to address the issue as openly as possible, without getting too emotional or preachy. You want your children to know you’re there to support and help, not to condemn them.

The best way to have a healthy dialogue about what your kids are thinking about and what’s going on with their bodies is to establish lines of communication early on. If you aren’t open to talking about sex or other personal subjects when your children are young, your kids may be a lot less likely to seek Mom and Dad out when it counts.

Learn More

Consider sharing these articles from Nemours’ TeensHealth.org with your adolescents:

Robyn Miller, MD

Dr. Robyn Miller is an adolescent medicine specialist at Nemours Children's Hospital in Wilmington, Del., and Nemours Pediatrics, Philadelphia.