A recent report from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are on a “steep and sustained rise.” The report found that over the past four years, cases of gonorrhea have increased 67 percent and syphilis has increased 76 percent. Chlamydia remains the most commonly reported STD, with 1.7 million infections occurring annually. According to the Oregon Health Authority, these same troubling trends are occurring locally in Benton, Linn and Lincoln counties.
Chalk it up to changing social attitudes about sex or the way sex is practiced, but sexual activity is increasing and with it sexually transmitted diseases.
“People often don’t realize they have an STD because they have no symptoms, and become unknowing spreaders of the disease,” said Sugat Patel, MD, from Samaritan Infectious Disease. “Awareness of disease hasn’t kept up with the increase in sexual activity."
According to the CDC, only about 10 percent of men and 5 to 30 percent of women who test positive for chlamydia actually have symptoms. Most people have no symptoms of gonorrhea, and syphilis symptoms can be sporadic.
Symptoms of chlamydia and gonorrhea may include an abnormal discharge from the vagina or penis, or a burning sensation while urinating.
The first signs of syphilis may include a single sore or multiple sores at the place where the disease entered the body. The sores are painless and might not be noticed. After three to six weeks the initial sores heal, but a rash may develop on the torso, hands and feet, and sores may develop in the mouth, vagina and anus. If left untreated the outward symptoms of syphilis will go away, but the disease will continue to live in the body and affect internal organs and eventually the brain and nervous system.
Use of Protection Is Low
Patel reports that condom use, which is a reliable way to prevent STDs, is not as high as it should be and that misconceptions abound.
“I have many patients who say they use condoms and practice safe sex, but they aren’t using condoms with oral sex,” said Dr. Patel. “STDs can be transmitted to the genitals but also the anus and mouth.”
For older adults who aren’t worried about birth control or who may be unfamiliar with the risk of STDs after many years in a monogamous relationship, using condoms is still important. AARP conducted a survey on sexually active adults over age 50 and found that only 1 in 5 is using protection, even as STDs continue to rise across all age groups.
Treatments & Screenings Are Effective
According to Dr. Patel, antibiotics can effectively treat chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis but work best when the disease is caught early. Reports of gonorrhea becoming antibiotic resistant in other places around the country mean that getting correct treatment is important to minimize the risk of the disease becoming difficult to treat.
Although there may not be bothersome symptoms, not treating these diseases can have serious consequences. Women can develop pelvic inflammatory disease from chlamydia and gonorrhea, and can pass the STD on to their children during birth. Men can experience pain and infertility. Untreated syphilis can spread to the brain, eyes and nervous system.
Screening for syphilis and HIV requires a simple blood draw, while chlamydia and gonorrhea use a swab. Testing for these and other STDs like hepatitis, HPV and genital herpes can be conducted at your doctor’s office.
HIV Is Still a Concern
Advances in care for people with HIV means the disease is now more manageable than ever. Dr. Patel reports that new medications minimize symptoms and the likelihood of passing the disease on to others. A daily pill can even prevent HIV for those who are at a high risk and currently not infected. However, the disease still poses a risk to those who are sexually active, and there is no cure. The key remains aggressive testing and treatment.
Dr. Patel recommends the following screening guidelines to help prevent the spread of STDs:
- Get tested at least annually if you are sexually active. Consider testing every three months if you have multiple partners, don’t use condoms or are a man who has sex with other men. Testing may include a blood test and swab samples around your genitals, anus and mouth.
- Get tested at the start of a new relationship.
- Use latex condoms for vaginal, anal and oral sex.
- If diagnosed with an STD, contact your partners from the previous 60 days so they can be screened.
If you are worried about having a sexually transmitted infection you can schedule an E-Visit for testing. Your E-Visit provider can order lab tests for a variety of STDs and you will be notified of the results when they are available. Lab testing includes tests for gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis B or C.
E-Visits are available to Samaritan patients with a MyChart account Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Visit samhealth.org/MyChart to learn more or start your E-Visit today.