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The rise of STIs: why we are never too old to practice safe sex

Published : Friday February 3, 2012 | Posted in : Sexual Health
Safe sex for older people

It is now, more so than ever, considered a misconception that the problem of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is that of the young. Good sexual health and practicing safe sex is consistently aimed at those aged 16-24, when most young people are likely to be newly sexually active and in need of the facts.

Yet, it appears to have reached a point where youngsters know more about the risks of unprotected sex and the threat of STIs than even their parents or grandparents. Considering the number of cases of disease reported in the over-45s doubled over the space of a decade, it is definitely time that all of us, regardless of age, are aware of how to practice safe sex.

Causes

There is no one reason as to why there has been a rise of STIs in older sexually active people, but it is believed that high divorce rates, greater sexual freedom and the changes women face as result of the menopause have contributed to the increase in cases.

As more and more people are getting divorced, the more people are looking for dates or even just looking to have sex, as a way to express and enjoy themselves. Coming out of long-term relationships, where protection may not have been used, can pose problems for those unaware of the effects of having had multiple partners or ‘sleeping around’. While this naivety may show previous, admirable commitment to one person, whereby the risk of exposure to sexual infections is comparatively low, it is of little use when circumstances change and you find yourself single in your 50s. Starting up new sexual relationships should be done with care, and going to your doctor for a sexual health check would be worthwhile and advisable.

In their campaign ‘Middle-Age Spread’, sexual health charity FPA warned how "too many people in that age group coming out of long-term relationships don't think safer sex applies to them. But the truth is STIs will find you just as attractive whatever your age."

Men who use erectile dysfunction medications (e.g. Viagra) should take extra care, as within the first year of using them there is a considerable risk of catching an STI. Those women who have experienced or who are experiencing the menopause may be at greater risk of STIs as the changes in their bodies make them particularly vulnerable.

Get educated

As reported in the student-focused British Medical Journal (Student BMJ), 80% of 50-90 year olds are still sexually active, and between 2000 and 2009, the number of STIs doubled to 13, 000 in the over- 45s.

Infections such as Chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital warts, and even syphilis have seen a rise in recent years.

The most common STI in the UK is Chlamydia, which within the last ten years has seen a rise in figures by a staggering 138%. Though it is commonly associated with those under 25, any age is susceptible to this infection. Syphilis, though quite rare in modern society, still sees an estimated 3,000 cases a year. Not only is it dangerous, it is contagious, so diagnosis and treatment should be sought immediately.

These are not just figures; these are real cases, real people. Awareness of STIs, even if you do maintain good sexual health, is important. Statistics being as they are, the need to ensure that older people feel at ease in discussing their sexual health with their doctor is paramount.

Though it may be a ‘generation’ issue, whereby those of a certain age fear the stigma attached to STIs, GPs should encourage older patients that no embarrassment should be felt about any medical issue - as advocated by the sexual health charity, the Terrence Higgins Trust.

Prevention

As standard as it might seem to say, the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections is lessened by the use of contraception. That such the contraceptive pill may well prevent pregnancy, but it does not protect from STIs.

• Use a condom;

• Get tested (annual STI tests are recommended);

• Know your sexual health and be aware of your partner’s.

If you do contract an STI, act immediately to be properly diagnosed and to receive appropriate treatment.

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