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8 Common STDs

From HIV to herpes, get the facts

When it comes to your health, protecting against osteoporosis and heart disease shouldn’t be your only concerns. STDs are a real risk for sexually active adults over 50.

More than 16 percent of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses are in adults 50 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC now encourages those between the ages of 13 and 64 to be tested for HIV/AIDS as part of their regular health screenings.

See also: Discreet ways to get condoms and STD tests.

Between 2005 and 2009, the rates of syphilis increased 67 percent and diagnoses of chlamydia jumped 40.5 percent among those 55 and older; the rates of gonorrhea declined in the over 55 age group but still represented more than 2,200 new cases nationwide.

Laura Berman, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and author of Real Sex for Real Women: Intimacy, Pleasure and Sexual Wellbeing, believes that boomers are at increased risk for STDs in part because they are more sexually active than previous generations, thanks to performance-enhancing drugs such as Viagra.

While boomers may have better sex lives than their parents, they’re less likely to be educated about the risks than their children or grandchildren. "[The over-50 population] is a group that feels like it’s not at risk for STDs,” says Berman. "Some Baby Boomers still believe in the adage, ‘Nice girls don’t carry condoms.'"

There is also a belief, according to Berman, that since the possibility of pregnancy has passed, so has the need for condoms. But that’s not so. As you get older, condoms become even more important for protecting your sexual health.

After menopause, the vaginal walls are thinner and more susceptible to tears, which can increase the risk of contracting or transmitting STDs. A lack of natural lubrication can also increase the likelihood of vaginal tearing and create more entry points for infection, notes Berman.

"After you’ve gone through menopause, it’s even harder to recognize the symptoms of STDs," says Vanessa Cullins, M.D., vice president of medical affairs at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. For example, changes in vaginal discharge that are often associated with certain STDs may be passed off as symptoms of menopause and go unchecked.

The little blue pill has also been linked to higher STD rates: A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that men who take drugs for erectile dysfunction are more likely to have an STD infection than their non-medicated peers.

"You can have an active, healthy sex life long after you turn 50, but you need to protect yourself," says Berman. To help you, we’ve compiled information on the most common STDs.

Next: HIV/AIDS. >>

HIV/AIDS

What is it?

HIV or human immunodeficiency virus is a virus that attacks the immune system, making the body unable to fight off infections and disease; AIDS or acquired immune deficiency syndrome is the most advanced stage of HIV infection.

What are the symptoms?

HIV is often asymptomatic in its early stages. In fact, 1 in 5 people with HIV don’t know they’re infected because it can take up to 10 years for symptoms to appear. When the first symptoms do appear, they commonly include swollen glands, fever, headaches, fatigue, and muscle aches that may only last for a few weeks. The symptoms of AIDS – such as recurring vaginal yeast infections, rapid weight loss, night sweats, persistent dry coughing and diarrhea – appear as the body’s disease-fighting white blood cells diminish due to HIV.

How is it spread?

HIV/AIDS is spread through the exchange of blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk during activities such as vaginal or anal intercourse, sharing needles for injection drug use, and breastfeeding. There is no risk of infection from closed-mouth kissing, sharing drinking glasses, or other casual contact.

How is it diagnosed?

A blood test is used to identify the presence of antibodies. In most cases it takes 12 weeks for the antibodies to show up in blood work after the initial infection, though sometimes, it takes up to six months.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for HIV/AIDS. Thanks to advances in medical technology, it’s possible to take combinations of medications, called highly active antitretroviral therapy (HAART), to keep the virus under control.

Next: Herpes. >>

Herpes

What is it?

Herpes is a virus that affects the mouth, lips and tongue (oral herpes) or the penis, vulva, vagina, and anus (genital herpes). One strain of the virus, herpes simplex type 1, usually causes oral sores, while another strain — type 2 — usually causes genital sores. But either type of herpes virus can infect either area of the body.

What are the symptoms?

Oral herpes causes cold sores or fever blisters around the mouth.

Genital herpes may cause similar breakouts on the or near the genitalia. The symptoms can disappear after a few weeks and reappear weeks or months later. Often, there are no symptoms or mild symptoms that go unnoticed, such as headache, chills, and fever. More serious signs of infection include burning upon urination or itching and pain in the infected area.

How is it spread?

Oral and genital herpes are spread through physical contact, including kissing and vaginal and anal sex. The virus is most contagious when open sores are present but it can be spread at anytime. Since herpes can be asymptomatic for years, it’s often difficult to know who infected you with the disease.

How is it diagnosed?

A blood test can determine if you’re infected, even if no symptoms are present. If you have sores, your doctor may test fluids from the blisters to confirm a diagnosis.

How is it treated?

There is no cure for herpes. Medications help manage the infection and can speed up healing of herpes blisters and increase periods between breakouts, but the virus will remain in your body.

Next: Syphillis. >>

Syphilis

What is it?

Syphilis is a bacterial infection passed from one partner to another during sexual contact. The infection can affect the vagina, penis, urethra, and anus as well as the mouth and lips.

What are the symptoms?

There are three stages of syphilis, each with different symptoms. In the primary stage, you may notice an open sore, called a chancre. Chancres often appear about three weeks after infection, though it can take up to 90 days for a chancre to form. The sores are commonly found on the genitals but may also appear inside the vagina, on the cervix, and on the lips or breasts. Between three and six weeks after the chancres appear, syphilis enters the secondary stage, which includes rashes on your palms and the soles of your feet, fever, sore throat, muscle pains, weight loss, and even hair loss. If left untreated, this stage can last for up to two years. Late-stage syphilis can occur between one and 20 years after the initial infection and may cause damage to the heart, brain, and nervous system; in rare cases, late-stage syphilis is fatal.

The stages of syphilis often overlap and may occur in any order. Syphilis often has no symptoms or such mild symptoms it goes undiagnosed for long periods.

How is it spread?

In order for syphilis to be spread, there must be direct contact with the sores during vaginal and anal sex, oral sex, and, rarely, kissing. It’s especially contagious during the earliest stages when sores are present.

How is it diagnosed?

To test for syphilis, your doctor will do a blood test or, if sores are present, a swab test.

How is it treated?

Syphilis can be treated with antibiotics. Even though the infection is treatable, damage done during late-stage syphilis is irreversible.

Next: Gonorrhea. >>

Gonorrhea

What is it?

Once known as the Clap or the Drip, gonorrhea is a bacterial infection contracted during sexual contact. The vagina, cervix, penis, anus, and throat can all be infected.

What are the symptoms?

Like many other STDs, there are often no signs of infection. If symptoms do appear, it’s most common for women to experience abdominal pain, fever, frequent urges to urinate, painful urination, and yellowish vaginal discharge, These symptoms start between 24 hours and two weeks after infection. Men with gonorrhea may have pain or burning during urination, frequent urination, and pus-like discharge from the penis. Symptoms are most likely to appear only in the morning.

How is it spread?

You can’t get gonorrhea through casual contact like kissing; it’s spread through oral sex and vaginal and anal intercourse.

How is it diagnosed?

A swab test of the discharge is most common; urine tests are also available to test for gonorrhea.

How is it treated?

Antibiotics can clear the infection.

Next: Chlamydia. >>

Chlamydia

What is it?

Chlamydia is a bacterial infection and the most common STD in the United States. The penis, vagina, cervix, anus, urethra, throat, and eyes can all be infected by chlamydia.

What are the symptoms?

Chlamydia is another STD that often has no symptoms, especially in women. If symptoms do appear, it usually happens between five and 10 days after infection. The symptoms in women can include abdominal pain, a strong-smelling yellowish discharge, painful intercourse, and low-grade fever. In men, pain or burning during urination, a watery or milky discharge from the penis, and swollen or tender testicles are the most common signs of chlamydia. The symptoms of chlamydia are most likely to be present only in the mornings.

How is it spread?

You’re unlikely to be infected with chlamydia during oral sex. The disease is spread through vaginal and anal intercourse.

How is it diagnosed?

Urine tests are the most popular for diagnosing chlamydia. It’s also possible to swab the penis, cervix, urethra, or anus to test for the disease.

How is it treated?

A course of antibiotics is prescribed to treat chlamydia. If left untreated, chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, an infection of the uterus and fallopian tubes. In men, it can cause epididymitis, an inflammation of the testicles that in turn can lead to sterility. In rare cases, chlamydia can cause an autoimmune condition called reactive arthritis.

Next: Hepatitis B. >>

Hepatitis B

What is it?

Although hepatitis B is an infection of the liver, it is most often transmitted through sexual contact.

What are the symptoms?

The earliest symptoms of infection include fatigue, headaches, fever, loss of appetite, joint pain, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. In its later stages, hepatitis B may cause dark urine, pale-colored bowel movements, and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes). Often, there are no symptoms at all: 50 percent of those infected with hepatitis B are asymptomatic.

How is it spread?

Hepatitis B is spread through the exchange of bodily fluids like semen, vaginal fluid, blood, and urine. It’s highly contagious and most likely to be transmitted during oral or anal sex and sharing needles.

How is it diagnosed?

A blood test is required to diagnose hepatitis B.

How is it treated?

Hepatitis B has no cure. Since the infection often clears on its own within four to eight weeks after symptoms appear, no treatment is required at first. In a small number of cases (about 1 in 20) it becomes a chronic infection requiring antiviral meds or, in serious cases, a liver transplant. In these cases, carriers are contagious for the rest of their lives. Vaccinations are available to prevent hepatitis B.

Next: Pubic Lice. >>

Pubic Lice

What is it?

Commonly called crabs, pubic lice are tiny insects that attach themselves to the hair and skin in the pubic region.

What are the symptoms?

It takes about five days for symptoms to appear. Intense itching in the genital area is the most common complaint.

How is it spread?

Pubic lice can be spread through physical contact, including sex. It’s also possible to get crabs from infected bedding, furniture, and toilet seats, but this is rare.

How is it diagnosed?

You’ll likely notice pubic lice without the help of a doctor. The tiny grey insects can be seen with a naked eye or a magnifying glass. Their eggs, which are attached near the roots of the pubic hair, are white. If you’re unsure whether you have crabs, your doctor can confirm the diagnosis with a visual inspection.

How is it treated?

The same over-the-counter medications used to treat head lice can be effective for treating crabs. Look for RID and Nix at the drugstore. If DIY treatments don’t work, stronger prescription medications are available from your doctor. Hot baths, shaving, and other home remedies are not effective for treating pubic lice.

Next: Human Papillomavirus. >>

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

What is it?

HPV is a virus with more than 100 different strains, including some that cause genital warts. In addition to producing warts on the hands and feet, approximately 40 types of HPV infect the genital area. The strains that cause genital warts are considered low-risk. High-risk strains of the virus can cause cancer; the most common cancer associated with HPV is cervical cancer. HPV is the most common STD in the nation, affecting at least 50 percent of those who are sexually active.

What are the symptoms?

The virus often has no symptoms. HPV infections frequently clear on their own within two years after infection. In some cases, genital warts may appear around the vagina, vulva, penis, scrotum, anus or rectum. Warts usually appear between six weeks and six months after infection, though it can take much longer. The warts may be too small to be noticeable. In fact, most people with HPV have no idea they’re infected.

How is it spread?

HPV is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact; intercourse is not necessary to spread the virus.

How is it diagnosed?

HPV is usually diagnosed when warts are found or following the results of an abnormal Pap test (the high-risk strains of HPV cause changes in the cervical cells that are collected during Pap smears). Because the risk of cervical cancer increases in women over 30, HPV tests are frequently part of routine physical exams. The test screens cervical cells collected during a Pap smear for the presence of the virus.

How is it treated?

There is no cure or treatment for HPV; most infections clear on their own. A new vaccine to prevent HPV is available, but it is not recommended for anyone over 26, because most sexually active adults have already been exposed to the virus. The CDC recommends that all girls get the three-shot vaccine at age 11 or 12. Boys and young men aged 9 to 26 can also get vaccinated to protect themselves and their future partners. Epidemiologists believe the vaccine will prevent many deadly cases of cervical, anal, and other cancers.

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