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Sexually Transmitted Diseases in Adolescents

What are sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)?

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infectious diseases transmitted through sexual contact. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 19 million new cases occur annually in the U.S. Fifty percent of the new infections occur in people in the age range of 15 to 24 years.

Protecting your adolescent from STDs

The best way to prevent your son or daughter from contracting an STD is to advise them to abstain from any type of sexual contact with another person. However, if they decide to become sexually active, or are currently sexually active, there are several precautionary measures to follow, recommended by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to help reduce your adolescent's risk of developing a sexually transmitted disease. These include:

  • Have a mutually monogamous sexual relationship with an uninfected partner.

  • Use (consistently and correctly) a male latex or female polyurethane condom, even for oral sex.

  • Use sterile needles if injecting intravenous drugs.

  • Decrease susceptibility to HIV infections by preventing and controlling other STDs. Having another STD makes it easier to get infected with HIV.

  • Delay having sexual relationships as long as possible; the younger a person is when they begin to have sex for the first time, the more susceptible they become to developing an STD.

  • Have regular checkups for HIV and STDs.

  • Learn the symptoms of STDs and seek medical help as soon as possible if any symptoms develop.

  • Avoid having sexual intercourse during menstruation.

  • Avoid anal intercourse, or use a male latex condom and topical microbicides.

  • Avoid douching.

What should my adolescent do if diagnosed with an STD?

  • Begin treatment immediately, take the full course of medications, and follow your doctor's advice.

  • Notify all recent sexual partners and urge them to get medical checkups.

  • Avoid sexual activity while under treatment for an STD. If your partner also needs treatment, wait until his or her treatment is completed as well.

  • Have a follow-up test to be sure the STD has been successfully treated.

What are some common types of STDs?

Numerous STDs have been identified and affect more than 19 million men and women in the U.S. each year. According to the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the CDC, common types of STDs include:

  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a virus that destroys the body's ability to fight off infection, is spread by unprotected sex with an infected person, as well as through contact with infected blood or contaminated needles. People with advanced HIV infection are very susceptible to many life-threatening diseases and to certain forms of cancer.

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common sexually transmitted disease that can cause genital warts called condylomas, which can occur on the inside or outside areas of the genitals and may spread to the surrounding skin or to a sexual partner. Because HPV infection does not always cause warts, the infection may go undetected.
    Women with an HPV infection have an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. Regular Pap tests can detect HPV infection, as well as abnormal cervical cells. An HPV vaccine is available to help prevent cervical cancer and genital warts.
    Although there is treatment for genital warts (which sometimes go away on their own), the virus remains and warts can reappear. Certain types of HPV can also cause warts--called common warts--on other body parts such as the hands; however, these do not generally cause health problems.

  • Chlamydial infections. Chlamydial infections, the most common of all STDs, can affect both men and women. They may cause an abnormal genital discharge and burning with urination. In women, untreated chlamydial infection may lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which is an infection of the uterus, fallopian tubes, and other reproductive organs that causes symptoms such as lower abdominal pain. Chlamydial infections can be treated with antibiotic therapy. Unfortunately, many people with chlamydial infection have few or no symptoms. The most common and serious complications occur in women and include pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic (tubal) pregnancy, and infertility.

  • Gonorrhea. Gonorrhea causes a discharge from the vagina or penis and painful or difficult urination. The most common and serious complications occur in women and include pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic (tubal) pregnancy, and infertility.
    Gonorrhea infections can be treated with antibiotic therapy.

  • Genital herpes. Genital herpes infections are caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV).
    Symptoms may include painful blisters or open sores in the genital area, which may be preceded by a tingling or burning sensation in the area. The herpes sores usually disappear within a few weeks, but the virus remains in the body and the lesions may recur from time to time.
    There is no cure for HSV but there are antiviral agents to take that can shorten an outbreak and reduce symptoms.

  • Syphilis. The initial symptom of syphilis is a painless open sore that usually appears on the penis, in the vagina, or around either sexual organ. Untreated syphilis may go on to more advanced stages, including a transient rash and, eventually, serious involvement of the heart and central nervous system. Syphilis infections can be treated with antibiotic therapy.

  • Other diseases that may be sexually transmitted include:

    • Bacterial vaginosis

    • Chancroid

    • Cytomegalovirus infections

    • Granuloma inguinale (donovanosis)

    • Lymphogranuloma venereum

    • Molluscum contagiosum

    • Pubic lice

    • Scabies

    • Trichomoniasis

    • Vaginal yeast infections

Facts about STDs and adolescents

  1. STDs affect men and women of all backgrounds and economic levels. However, nearly half of all STD cases in the U.S. occur in people younger than age 25.

  2. STDs are on the rise, possibly due to more sexually active people who have multiple sex partners during their lives.

  3. Many STDs initially cause no symptoms. In addition, many STD symptoms may be confused with those of other diseases not transmitted through sexual contact--especially in women. Even symptomless STDs can be contagious.

  4. Women suffer more frequent and severe symptoms from STDs:

    • Some STDs can spread into the uterus (womb) and fallopian tubes and cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can lead to both infertility and ectopic (tubal) pregnancy.

    • Some strains of HPV infection in women may also be associated with cervical cancer.

    • STDs can be passed from a mother to her baby before or during birth. Some infections of the newborn may be successfully treated, but others may cause a baby to be permanently disabled or even die.

  5. When diagnosed early, many STDs can be successfully treated.