Whether you’re new to the dating scene or starting over in midlife, keep your head. In the midst of the excitement and curiosity, learn how to protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections and diseases (STIs and STDs), which can cause all manner of annoyance—and sometimes life-threatening illness.
Vulnerable at Any Age
According to the CDC, young people age 15 to 26 in the United States represent only one-fourth of sexually active people, but they account for half of new STI cases diagnosed every year, including 70 percent of gonorrhea cases, 63 percent of chlamydia cases, and nearly 50 percent of human papillomavirus (HPV) infections.
But if you’re in midlife, you’re not off the hook. With the help of Internet dating and enhancement medications like Viagra, more than half of Americans remain sexually active well into their 70s—so STD risk remains.
“A lot of my patients presumed that they would live a life of monogamy with a single partner, and then life circumstances changed,” says Kay Judge, M.D., a former Sutter Health integrative medicine physician. “People who’ve started dating again in midlife can be more trusting and not as savvy about asking the right questions of their prospective partners’ sexual history.”
If you’re a woman, STD complications can carry a particularly high cost. Undiagnosed STIs cause 24,000 women to become infertile each year. And if you’re older, thinned and dry vaginal tissue raises your risk for HIV infection from micro-tears during sex.
Protect Yourself and Partners
Dr. Judge suggests these safer-sex tactics for protecting yourself—and to prevent spreading an infection.
- Communicate! Before you get intimate, talk with your new partner about past partners, STD history and drugs that used needles. “Having the conversation is important because it’s your responsibility to protect your body,” Dr. Judge says. The CDC provides conversation starters to broach the topic.
- Foster Honest Dialogue with Your Doctor. “You don’t have to learn your medical rules alone; being very open with your physician can help guide you through questions,” Dr. Judge says.
- Get Tested—and Retested as Needed. For any STD, the earlier you catch it, the better your treatment options. Because older people don’t get tested as frequently for STDs, they are more likely than younger people to get an HIV diagnosis at a later disease stage, leading to a poorer prognosis and shorter survival rates.
- Seek Treatment. If you do test positive for an STD, it’s not the end of the world; some have cures, and all are treatable. Talk to your doctor and your partner.
- Create a Safer-Sex Strategy. Condoms, used correctly and every time you have sex, lower risk for all STDs (though skin contact even with a condom can transfer some infections). Whether you’re male or female, take responsibility for your health and carry a condom. “It’s important to note that female condoms also exist,” Dr. Judge says. “If a man may not want to use a condom, you can be empowered to make sure you have a protective barrier in place.”
- Get Vaccinated. Starting around age 11 and before you’re 21 if male, 26 if female, get the HPV vaccine ,which protects you against genital warts and even some cancers. Talk to your doctor about other STD-prevention medications.
Know the Symptoms
Whether you’re young, middle age or older, if you’re sexually active get familiar with STI symptoms, especially because for women, some can be mistaken for normal menopausal changes.
Talk to your doctor if you notice any of these common signs:
- Changes in vaginal or penile discharge or odor.
- Pelvic cramping, pain or swelling in the groin or abdomen, without a known cause.
- Changes, such as blisters, warts, rashes and sores, on skin around the genitals, anus, mouth or nose.
- Sores on the mouth, nose, eyes, throat or anus.
- Abnormal vaginal or anal bleeding.
- Need to pee often or burning and pain when you pee.
- Flu-like symptoms, such as achy joints and fever.