Sheaths, rubbers, love gloves, raincoats…no matter what you call them, condoms are essential to protect against STDs during vaginal and anal intercourse and oral sex.
Despite the widespread availability of condoms, adults over 50 are often hesitant to use them. One study found that nearly 60 percent of single women ages 58 to 93 didn’t use a condom the last time they had sex; 91 percent of men over 50 didn’t use a condom during sex with a casual acquaintance, according to another report.
See also: 8 common STDs.
"The last time a lot of 50, 60, and 70-year-olds were single, there was no need to carry condoms, ask partners to use condoms, or initiate conversations about sexual history and STD testing," says Laura Berman, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. “There is a real risk of contracting an STD in this age group, making condoms absolutely necessary,” she says. The only exception? Partners in monogamous relationships who have both tested negative for STDs,
Opt for latex or polyurethane condoms, which protect against viruses. Women should wear dental dams when receiving oral sex, to protect against STDs. Condoms should be used on shared sex toys to protect against the exchange of bodily fluids, advises Vanessa Cullins, M.D., vice president of medical affairs at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
For all sex play, Cullins recommends using a water-based lubricant (oil-based products can break down latex condoms and increase the risk of spreading infections). "Lubrication is a must for women after menopause because it helps ease vaginal dryness and protects the vagina from micro-tears that might increase the risk of contracting an STD."
If you’re worried about being caught red-handed in the drugstore checkout line with a box of Trojans and a bottle of lube, order supplies online. Most drugstore chains, including CVS and Walgreens, will ship condoms, dental dams, and lubricant right to your door. When ordering online, Cullins suggests shopping for brands you recognize and checking the expiration dates when the package arrives.
Practicing safer sex is part of protecting yourself and your partner from STDs. The other part is knowing your own health status. Says Cullins, "If you’re thinking about becoming sexually active or changing partners, you need to get tested."
Your doctor should do a full STD panel to test for the possibility of infection before you get intimate with a new paramour.
"It might not occur to most doctors to ask older patients about sex or offer sexual health screenings so you’ll often have to bring it up," says Berman.
If the thought of talking sex with your family doctor is too uncomfortable to bear, urgent care clinics and state health departments do offer discreet STD testing. Although most of the patients in Planned Parenthood clinics are in their teens and twenties, the nonprofit does offer sexual health screenings and STD testing to women over 50. You can also use one of several Internet services to set up a confidential test at a nearby medical lab, though the quality of these services’ advice and patient resources varies.
Medicare covers the cost of HIV screenings. Earlier this year the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that it might add STD tests to the list of exams covered under the federal health insurance program.
Even if you get a clean bill of health, don’t forget to ask all your partners whether they’ve been tested.
"You have to advocate for your own sexual health,” Berman says. “Getting tested — and making sure your partner does the same — is one way to do that."
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