Talking to Your Teen About STDs

Talk to a teenager about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and if they don’t immediately shy away, they will likely offer a variety of answers. It turns out that many teens, and even adults, don’t know much about STDs until they get one.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 19 million new STD infections in the United States every year. In fact, the CDC found that nearly one in four young women ages 14 to 19 has one of the five most common sexually transmitted infections: human papillomavirus (HPV), gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis or herpes.

Paige Hertweck, M.D., pediatric and adolescent gynecologist with Norton Children’s Hospital Gynecology Specialists, answers some common questions from teens and adults about STDs.

How do I get an STD?
An STD is spread from one person to another through sexual contact such as intercourse, oral-genital contact, anal sex or incorrectly using a condom.

Can I get an STD without having sex?
The short answer is yes. The longer answer begins with defining what sex is. Someone can contract an STD without having sexual intercourse involving a penis and a vagina. During oral sex, there is skin-to-skin contact and there can be body fluid exchange, which can spread STDs like herpes, HPV and gonorrhea. Someone with herpes can spread it simply by touching their mouth and then touching someone’s genitals.

What do I need to know about human papillomavirus (HPV)?
HPV is a virus that can cause cancer and genital warts in women and men. HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. In many cases, HPV goes away on its own and does not cause any health problems. But when HPV does not go away, it can cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis or anus.

HPV can be transmitted from someone who doesn’t even know they have it through genital touching or sexual intercourse. Fortunately there is a vaccine for HPV that Dr. Hertweck recommends for both boys and girls between 11 and 12 years old.

Can I get an STD from kissing?
This is possible but not very common. If your partner’s mouth is infected with an STD, then he or she may be able to pass that infection to your mouth during a kiss. Oral herpes, fever blisters and cold sores can be passed through a kiss if your partner is infected.

Is there any way to tell if my partner has an STD?
Teens often ask if there is a way they can tell if someone has an STD by looking. Unfortunately, most of these infections do not have symptoms you can see.

If someone is infected with herpes, there may be little blisters or sores on the mouth or genitals. With chlamydia, the individual may notice discharge from the vagina or discharge after urination. Syphilis can result in warts, painless ulcers and/or bumps.

Someone’s risk of getting an STD is determined by the partner’s sexual history. The only way you can tell that you have an STD is by getting tested by your health care provider.

Can you get rid of an STD?
This depends on the type of infection. There are several STDs that are treatable with antibiotics, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. However, HIV and herpes are ongoing infections that can be controlled with medication, but not cured.

What can I do to avoid getting an STD?
First, not having any type of sex (abstinence) is the best strategy to protect against STDs. Latex condoms can help prevent HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis.

Being in a mutually monogamous relationship is another way that you can avoid STDs. Mutual monogamy means that you agree to be sexually active with only one person who’s agreed to be sexually active only with you.

STDs must be accurately diagnosed and treated completely. Anyone who is 15 to 25 years old and has had sex with another person should tell their health care provider and get tested, which usually may only require a urine sample. If you think you have an STD or if you had sex with someone who might have an STD, you should see a health care provider.


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