Q & A: Sexually Transmitted Infections Among Older Adults
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like genital herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), are at an all-time high. While most of these cases affect teens and young adults, rates among older people are also climbing.
“Older individuals may think they don’t have to use protection. Maybe they lost their lifelong partner or they’ve changed relationships and find themselves dating again. Often they don’t realize or remember that the dating environment has new rules,” says Phillis Mims-Gillum, M.D., an obstetrician–gynecologist specializing in sexual health at Henry Ford Health System.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people over age 55 are contracting STIs at an alarming rate. Among people ages 55 to 64, cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea nearly doubled between 2012 and 2016. Yet there’s still a misconception that the recommendations for STI prevention somehow differ based on age.
Your STI Questions Answered
No matter what your age, talking about sex with a new partner can be challenging. You may feel awkward, presumptuous or downright uncomfortable. But having the conversation — and getting your questions answered — is the only way to protect against STIs.
Here, Dr. Mims-Gillum answers common questions about STIs:
Q: Why is the rate of STIs climbing, particularly among people over age 50?
A: Unfortunately, most doctors don’t test for STIs unless people complain about symptoms. So, older individuals may not even realize they’re infected — and that they could share the infection with an unsuspecting partner. That’s why it’s so important for everyone, especially those who are entering a new relationship, to ask their primary care providers to screen and test them for STIs, including HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea, herpes and chlamydia.
Related Topic: Let’s Talk About Sex (& Your Health)
Q: What are some ways people can approach a conversation about STIs with a new partner?
A: The most proactive way to approach the issue is to know your own status by getting tested for sexually transmitted infections. Share this information with your partner and explain that you would like them to get tested as well. It is a great way to communicate your commitment to protecting your partner’s health as well as your own.
Q: What if your partner does have an STI? How do you proceed in a relationship with that knowledge?
A: Fortunately, many STIs are treatable. But that doesn’t mean it’s safe to be intimate with an infected partner. Sometimes infections can linger without noticeable symptoms. Once you’ve been treated, discuss how you can safely engage in sexual relations. Sometimes, it’s by using condoms. Other times, it’s avoiding sexual contact during a flare. Still other times, you may have to avoid intercourse altogether, especially if you have symptoms, including pain, burning, tingling or visible sores.
Q: How does condom use today compare to decades past?
A: There was a big push in the 1980s to promote “safe sex.” People were scared of contracting HIV and there was a lot of motivation to use condoms. The public was more aware — and more concerned — about the consequences of not practicing safe sex. Now people are living with HIV for decades, even longer. Because of this, some people have become complacent. People need to understand STIs are still commonplace — and regardless of their age, they need to protect themselves.
Q: What should people know/understand about using condoms to prevent STIs?
A: First, no protection is 100 percent effective. Condoms can protect against many infections, but not all. Still, condom use is the best way to prevent STIs. Some people are often concerned about sensitivity. Others are worried about latex allergies. No matter what your concerns, it’s important to have an honest conversation with your health care provider about which condoms best address your concerns and how to use condoms appropriately.
Sexually Transmitted Infections Demystified
Though the rising rates of STIs are concerning, you can still have a happy and healthy sexual life. The key, says Dr. Mims-Gillum, is being aware of the risks — and taking the necessary steps to protect yourself and your partner. If someone you want to be intimate with shies away from getting tested, that’s a red flag.
Concerned you may have an STI? To find a primary care provider or make an appointment online, visit henryford.com. Or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Dr. Phillis Mims-Gillum is an OB/GYN who specializes in sexual health and sexuality counseling and sees patients for these conditions at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. Call (248) 661-6425 to schedule an appointment.