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Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are infections that are spread by sexual contact. While the incidence of reported STIs has actually declined in the United States in the last decade, the number of these infections in children and teenagers is still very high. About 25% of teenagers will have an STI before they graduate from high school.

Bacteria or viruses cause STIs. Any person who has sex with another person can get them. While STI symptoms can range from mild irritation and soreness to severe pain, many times there are no symptoms at all. The STI called chlamydia, for example, is generally symptom free or causes only mild symptoms. The diagnosis may not be made until complications develop.

Teenagers and young adults have higher rates of STIs than any other age group. One of the main reasons is that they frequently have unprotected sex. They are also biologically more likely to develop an infection. In addition, they may be less likely to use health care services that could give them information on how to protect themselves against STIs.

Prevention of STIs

The best way for teenagers to prevent STIs is to not have sexual intercourse. They should understand that when they choose to have sex, it is a decision that could affect them for the rest of their lives. Teenagers need to know that having sex could lead to pregnancy or an STI. Be certain that your teenager understands the risks. For example, make sure she knows that acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which is caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), is a leading cause of death in people aged 15 to 24 years. The presence of other STIs such as chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhea, and syphilis can increase the chance of getting an HIV infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with STIs have at least 2 to 5 times the risk of acquiring HIV through sexual contact.

Sexually transmitted infections can also cause pelvic inflammatory disease in women (an infection of the uterus and fallopian tubes) and epididymitis in men (inflammation of the coiled tube beside the testes). Complications from STIs can lead to infertility or an ectopic pregnancy (a fertilized egg that grows outside the womb). If a woman is pregnant, an STI can infect her baby.

Teenagers may face peer pressure to have sex. They need to understand that they can resist that pressure, and it’s OK to wait to have sex. Remind your teenager that saying “no” may not be easy at times, but saying “no” today is better than doing something she will regret tomorrow. Provide some guidance on what your teenager can say without hurting the feelings of her date, such as

  • “I like you a lot, but I’m just not ready to have sex.”
  • “You’re really fun to be with, and I wouldn’t want to ruin our relationship with sex.”
  • “You’re a great person, but sex isn’t how I prove I like someone.”
  • “I want to wait until I’m married to have sex.”

Also, let your teenager know that using alcohol or drugs can affect her ability to make a good decision. Drugs and alcohol make it more difficult to remain firm about the choice to wait to have sex. Even sexually active teenagers might try high-risk sexual behaviors while drinking alcohol or using drugs.

If a teenager starts having sex, it is important for her to practice safe sex. Safe sex means using a barrier method of birth control (eg, latex condoms) every time, beginning with the first sexual experience. Condoms are not a guarantee against STIs. The only way to truly prevent getting an STI is by not having sex at all. Condoms, however, can significantly reduce the risk of STIs and HIV. Talk to your teenager about how she can reduce her risk of STIs by limiting the number of lifetime sexual partners.

Anyone who is sexually active should get regular tests for STIs. Women should have an annual Pap smear. This is the first line of defense against cervical cancer and precancerous changes caused by papillomaviruses. Many doctors also recommend that every sexually active teenager be tested twice a year for gonorrhea and chlamydia and once a year for syphilis. Regular counseling about HIV is also important. Testing should be performed more frequently if symptoms such as abnormal vaginal discharge, irritation, or pain occur.

Using Condoms Properly

Even though you may have clearly spoken with your teenager about the advantages of waiting to have sex, you need to talk with her about birth control. To prevent the transmission of STIs, teenagers need to be taught how to effectively use condoms. The condom should be made of latex. Laboratory studies have shown that HIV and other viruses can pass through the pores of natural membrane or lambskin condoms. Remind your teenager that other forms of birth control, including birth control pills, shots like Depo-Provera, and implants like Norplant, do not prevent STIs. Only latex condoms offer this protection.

Share the following guidance on correct male condom use with your teenager:

  • A new condom should be used every time your teenager has sex.
  • Condoms need to be handled with care to prevent tearing or cutting them with fingernails, teeth, or sharp instruments.
  • A condom should be placed on the penis after it is erect and before any genital contact.
  • Sufficient lubrication should be used during intercourse with a condom. If a lubricant is used on the outside of the condom, it should only be a water-based product such as K-Y Jelly, Astroglide, or Aqua-Lube. Oil-based lubricants such as petroleum jelly or body lotion can weaken the latex material.
  • During withdrawal, the condom should be held tightly against the base of the penis to keep it from slipping off. Withdrawal needs to be done while the penis is still erect.

A female condom, made as a lubricated polyurethane sheath, and called Reality, is also available. Follow instructions on the product packaging for proper use.

Is Your Teenager at Risk?

Studies show that if your teenager has one or more of the following characteristics, he or she has an increased chance of getting a sexually transmitted disease:

  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Sexual contact with one or more individuals with a known STI, either in the present or the past
  • Sexual intercourse with a new partner during the past 2 months
  • More than 2 sexual partners in the past 12 months
  • Symptoms or signs of an STI
  • Having been a patient in an STI clinic
  • No contraception or the use of non-barrier birth control (eg, birth control pills)
  • Male homosexual activity
  • Homelessness
  • Use of injection drugs (eg, heroin)
  • Engaging in “survival sex” (ie, exchanging sex for money, food, drugs, or shelter)
  • Having spent time in a detention facility

 

Last Updated
5/12/2014
Source
Immunizations & Infectious Diseases: An Informed Parent's Guide (Copyright © 2006 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.