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If you think your teen isn’t “the type” to get an STD, statistics say otherwise and STIs do not discriminate. Learn the facts about teens and STDs:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), young people age 15 to 24 acquire half of all new STDs, and one in four sexually active adolescent females has an STD such as chlamydia or human papillomavirus (HPV).
When Jennifer Snyder, MD, family medicine physician at University Hospitals, Cleveland, Ohio, shares with parents that 50% of all new STD cases are in young people ages 15 to 24, “they are like, ‘That can’t be right,’” she says. “Many parents think their daughters or sons are not at risk.”
But that’s not the case. A National Center for Health Research survey showed almost half of all high schoolers have engaged in sexual intercourse at least once, and 15% report having sex with four or more partners. While safe sex and condom use is taught in schools, almost 40% said they did not use a condom during their last sexual encounter.
“There’s no way of looking at someone to find out if they have HPV, herpes or chlamydia,” she says, naming two other common STDs among teens. In fact, “herpes is rampant,” she says. The CDC reports that one out of every six people ages 14 to 49 has herpes.
Eight years after the HPV vaccine was introduced, girls ages 15 to 19 with HPV decreased by 83%. HPV includes more than 200 related viruses, 40 of which are spread through sexual contact. Two of the most serious cause genital warts, while about a dozen can cause cancers. The virus doesn’t go away and there is no cure. It could remain dormant for years, then appear later in life.
The HPV vaccine protects against nine strains of HPV, including the worst ones that cause genital warts or cancers.
Overall, STIs are at an all-time high. The CDC’s most recent Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance (2019) showed an increase in STDs for the sixth consecutive year. Chlamydia was up by 19% since 2015, gonorrhea was up by 56% and syphilis cases increased by 74%.
STDs are taught in school, but often sex and STD education is outdated, or the messaging is focused on abstinence and not reality. “The sex talk they get in school is, ‘Don’t have sex before you get married,’” Dr. Snyder says. “People generally don’t follow that rule. So, let’s come from a place where we realize that is not most people’s reality and work with that.”
It’s important to talk to your teen about STDs because of teens’ high risk of contracting an STI. STDs have serious consequences if they go untreated. For example, chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease that can result in infertility. Certain HPV strains cause cancer, and the CDC reports that almost all cervical cancer cases are caused by HPV.
Talking to your teen about STDs is critical for their health and wellbeing because the risk is real, and there are ways to prevent and test for STIs.
“We spend hours teaching our children how to tie their shoes, yet we teach them almost nothing about the sexual experience,” Dr. Snyder relates. Many parents she meets in her office have not had “the talk” with their teens, or the discussion is too limited to be effective.
Avoidance of the subject can shut the door to future conversations, including a talk about STDs, prevention, testing and treatment. They might seek out information from other sources, such as the internet or their friends or siblings. If your teen asks about sex, stay calm and easy to approach so they’ll come to you for help.
So, how can you begin having a discussion about sex? If you’re incredibly uncomfortable, try this approach. “You can say, ‘This is a hard talk to have, but I love you so much—I know it’s awkward,’” Dr. Snyder relates. “Talk about consent, maturity, love and the positive aspects of sexual relationships. Say, ‘I might not know all the answers, but if you come to me and ask, I’ll help you find the answers and keep you safe. We’ll do the best we can.’”
Keep it brief at first. Even a five minute conversation can open the door to more discussion later – especially if that’s all either of you is comfortable with to start.
Avoid giving a lecture or using scare tactics. Stay calm and take on a tone of care rather than judgement. Coming down too hard can make teens uncomfortable and unwilling to discuss sex with you.
Don’t shame your teen. Stick to the facts, addressing the risk of pregnancy and STDs. Explain birth control options, and consider making it accessible. Encourage your teen to look out for their own health.
Keep the dialogue open and communicate in different ways, such as texting. Meet teens where they are. If they’re more comfortable communicating via text, for example, adopt that approach.
Every year, half of new STD cases occur in young people ages 15 to 24. Explain the risk is real, and assure them there are easy ways to prevent STDs. Many teens are concerned about pregnancy and ask about condoms or birth control, but don’t put a lot of thought into STD risk.
Share the statistics with your teen in an open, honest way. Explain how STDs are transmitted and what can be done to prevent STDs, including vaccination and birth control options. Go over how STDs are typically diagnosed and treated.
STD dialogue is not a scare tactic when delivered in a calm, factual manner with an opportunity for your teen to ask questions and express concerns. And it’s better to go over it all before – not after – an STD or pregnancy scare.
|How it’s spread||How it’s prevented||How it’s treated|
|Chlamydia||Vaginal, anal or oral sex||Abstinence; latex condom||Antibiotics|
|Gonorrhea||Vaginal, anal or oral sex||Abstinence; latex condom||Antibiotics|
|Herpes||Oral herpes is spread through oral sex; genital herpes is spready by oral, vaginal or anal sex||Abstinence; latex condom||There is no cure but medication reduces symptoms.|
|HIV||Vaginal, anal or oral sex||Abstinence; latex condom; prophylaxis||There is no cure, but medications can treat symptoms and reduce viral load to undetectable levels.|
|HPV||Vaginal, anal or oral sex||Abstinence; latex condom; vaccination||There is no cure but medications to treat symptoms.|
|Trichomoniasis||Vaginal, anal or oral sex||Abstinence; latex condom||Medication|
STDs can be prevented in a few different ways:
The number one way to prevent STDs is to abstain from sex. This is a message often encouraged in school sexual education programs. Parents should talk to teens about waiting to have intercourse until they are in a committed partnership, both partners consent, and they have had mature discussions with each other about sex. However, we know that the majority of teens will not wait to have sex.
According to the CDC, among U.S. high school students surveyed in 2019, 62% have had sexual intercourse and 9% had four or more sexual partners. Of the 27% who had sexual intercourse during the previous three months, 46% did not use a condom and 12% did not use any method to prevent pregnancy.
Condoms are an effective way for sexually active teens to prevent STDs. The CDC says laboratory studies have shown latex condoms are a barrier against even the smallest STD pathogens.
Pre-exposure prophylaxis, also known as PrEP, such as Truvada can reduce the risk of HIV infection when taken daily. Truvada is FDA approved for teens as young as 15. Post-exposure prophylaxis, also known as PEP, can be taken within 72 hours of possible HIV exposure.
Encourage your teen to talk to their partners. They should be inquiring about whether someone they want to have sex with has been tested for STDs. Remind teens they need to tackle these conversations for their own safety.
Teens who are sexually active should get regular STD testing. It can be quick, is not painful and can be free if you go to an organization like Planned Parenthood. At the doctor’s office, STD tests are not generally offered without you requesting one. So ask. The CDC also offers this STD Testing Locator.
Each STD has its own test and a doctor or healthcare professional will help you figure out which test you need. STD testing can include a urine test or a cheek swab (HIV). STD tests can also be a blood test or using a swab to gently gather cell samples from the penis, vagina, urethra, cervix, anus or throat. A physical STD exam will include looking at genital areas for warts, sores, rashes, irrigation or discharge. If there is a presence of sores, a sample is gathered with a swab.
Teens generally do not necessarily need consent from their parents to get tested for STDs. Regulations vary by state. Some teens hesitate to get tested by their family doctors because they use their parents health insurance and they will see the bill.
At-home STD tests are available at pharmacies and online. For example, LetsGetChecked offers more than 30 STD tests you can order and have shipped to your house. After receiving it, you’ll activate the test, collect your sample and return it the same day using a prepaid shipping label.
“We want parents to talk to their children about getting tested and to make it a point to be a part of it when they see their doctor,” says Christy Altidor, associate director of adolescent health, National Coalition of STD Directors. “The test is a sure-fire way to reduce transmission. If we want to focus on prevention and reducing transmission, we really need to get people tested and remove the stigma from that.”
Your teen wouldn’t avoid getting a COVID-19 test if they believe they were exposed or have symptoms. “And, we wear masks to reinforce a barrier,” Altidor relates. “If you were to use a condom, it’s the same general idea. And if you do test positive, you get the services and treatments you need, inform the partners you need to inform, and move on with your life.”
If your teen tests positive for an STD, be supportive and seek immediate treatment. Be careful to avoid blame and instead focus on solutions. Altidor says, “Let your teen know, ‘If this happens to you, it’s okay. We still love you.’”
The conversation should carry the same tone as talking about sex and healthy relationships, and STD prevention. Discuss treatment options and how to talk to their partner about it.
After receiving positive test results, getting further testing might be a good idea. A healthcare provider will give those recommendations, along with treatment. Your teen will need to inform sexual partners, and they will need STD testing.
Let your teen know, though the outcome of the STD test was not what they hoped, getting tested was the best thing to do because they can get proper medical treatment.
|Organization||What they offer||Helpful resource||Website|
|Planned Parenthood||STD testing, resources and treatment||STD Testing, Treatment & Vaccines||plannedparenthood.org|
|Centers for Disease Control and Prevention||Statistics, resources, guidance, STD testing locator||GetTested||https://www.cdc.gov/std/default.htm
|U.S. Department of Health and Human Services||Resources||Talking with Your Teen About Preventing STDs||https://health.gov/myhealthfinder|
|American Academy of Pediatrics||Pediatrician guidance||STI Screening Guidelines||https://www.aap.org/en-us/advocacy-and-policy/aap-health-initiatives/adolescent-sexual-health/Pages/default.aspx|
These are good talking points or answers to have for teens with questions about sexual health.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), also known as sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are passed from one person to another through sexual activity. STDs can be transmitted through sexual intercourse, along with oral or anal sex, and uncommonly through close physical contact.
Every day worldwide, more than 1 million STIs are acquired, according to the World Health Organization. Each year, an estimated 376 people are diagnosed with new infections with 1 of 4 most common STDs: chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and trichomoniasis. An estimated 500-plus million people have herpes simplex virus (HSV), and more than 290 million women have a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection.
Anyone who is sexually active can get an STD. Any individual can get an STD by having vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has an STD. Teens should understand they can get an STD without “going all the way” because, as the CDC explains, some STIs like herpes and HPV are spread by skin contact.
STDs can be prevented by abstaining from vaginal, anal or oral sex. Proper use of a condom can prevent STDs, as well.
The top STDs for teens are HPV, chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhea and syphilis.
Not all STDs show symptoms. In fact, you can have an STD for years before a symptom appears, or never experience symptoms and pass the STD to a sexual partner. Planned Parenthood points out that 75% of women and 50% of men with chlamydia have no symptoms. That said, some common STD symptoms include discharge, burning or itching in the genital area.
Teens can get tested for STDs at their doctor’s office or at clinics such as Planned Parenthood. At-home testing kits are available. The CDC offers this helpful tool to find an STD testing location.
Bacterial STDs like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis can be treated and cured with antibiotics. However, viral STIs like genital herpes and HPV can be treated to relieve symptoms. HIV is treated with medicine to manage symptoms and reduce viral load to undetectable, untransmittable levels, but there is no cure.
If left untreated, STDs can cause major health problems including infertility, mother-to-child transmission, birth defects, neurological issues, cancer or even blindness.
If you have questions about STDs, you can learn more facts from the CDC and Planned Parenthood, along with organizations like The National Center for Health Research. You can trust your doctor and medical professionals for guidance. Check out our list of expert resources.
These experts contributed information and recommendations for this guide.
Jennifer Snyder, MD, family medicine physician, University Hospitals
Christy Altidor, associate director of adolescent health, National Coalition of STD Directors