Federal health data indicates that one single age group accounts for as many as half of all new STD cases in the U.S. in a given year: people between the ages of 15 and 24. Young people are at a higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases and infections for a variety of reasons, but the facts behind their risk level can’t be denied:
- About 62% of all new chlamydia infections were in people between 15 and 24.
- Women between the ages of 20 and 24 have the highest rate of gonorrhea, and women between 15 and 19 have the second-highest rate.
- Gonorrhea rates in 15- to 19-year-old men increased by 44% between 2014 and 2018.
- Primary and secondary syphilis rates went up by 45% between 2014 and 2018 for young men and doubled for young women during that time.
But there’s good news. While young people may have among the highest rates of many common STDs, they also are uniquely positioned to be able to prevent the spread of STDs by making some informed decisions about their medical status and lifestyle habits.
Abstain From Sexual Activity
The only way to completely eliminate the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease is a simple one, though may feel like it’s easier said than done: Don’t have sex or sexual contact with anybody. That means not only refraining from vaginal or anal intercourse, but it extends to oral sex and all types of sexual touching.
Many STDs are carried in bodily fluids like blood, semen and vaginal fluids, but some like HPV, herpes, trichomoniasis and syphilis can be spread through skin-to-skin contact. In some cases, even kissing can expose an uninfected person to an STD, such as herpes.
Those who fear the specter of peer pressure, don’t worry — it may seem like everybody you know is having sex, but that’s not true. In fact, about 6 in 10 high school students have never had sex, according to the CDC.
Did you know that getting a couple of doses of a particular vaccine can keep you from getting not only an STD but several types of cancer? That’s because HPV, which can be prevented with a vaccine, is the leading cause of cancer of many parts of the body, including the cervix and penis. Another vaccine can prevent hepatitis B, a disease that also spreads sexually.
Human papillomavirus, HPV, is the single most common STD on the planet, and most people who are sexually active will get at least one strain of the virus at some point in their lives, if not more than one. In fact, research indicates that about 85% of people who have sexual contact with at least one person will get HPV.
Health officials recommend that routine HPV vaccination is recommended at age 11 or 12, but vaccination is possible up to age 26 for people who were not fully vaccinated as children. Unfortunately, more than half of U.S. adolescents haven’t yet completed their vaccination series.
Vaccination against hep B, which if left untreated can cause liver and kidney damage, is recommended for all infants and for people under 19 who weren’t vaccinated as children. People older than that can be vaccinated if they are at a high risk of contracting the virus, and this includes people who engage in high-risk sexual activities, such as gay and bisexual men and people who have many new partners. In 2017, about 74% of infants received the vaccine within a few days of birth.
Stay Monogamous & Use Protection
For young people who do decide to have sex, the use of condoms or dental dams and the practice of sexual monogamy are the best ways to prevent STDs.
Medical studies have routinely illustrated a link between the number of sexual partners and the likelihood of an STD. In one study of college students, women with five or more sexual partners were 8 times more likely to have an STD than women who had only one partner.
In addition to a statistical connection, for at least one sex-related infection, having multiple new partners has a direct physical link. Bacterial vaginosis, which is not technically an STD, is an infection caused by the disruption of the normal bacteria in the vagina. One way that disruption can happen is when the body parts of a new person (a penis, tongue or finger) are introduced to the vagina. Urinary tract infections, similarly, can be spurred by sexual activity when bacteria is pushed into contact with the urethra; this is true whether you have a penis or vagina.
While it can be tempting to ditch the condoms or dental dams if you’re in a monogamous relationship, remember that in addition to preventing most STDs, condoms are also effective at preventing pregnancy, and not using condoms increases the risk of unintended pregnancy.
Avoid Drugs & Alcohol
Even the most responsible person who has established good sexual habits can make poor decisions when drunk or high, and young people who use drugs or alcohol also have a higher rate of sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancy.
In fact, according to CDC data, about 19% of young people who are sexually active drank or got high before they had sex, which can make them more likely to make poor choices when it comes to sexual partners as well as making it less likely they’ll use condoms or other protection.
The only way anybody can be 100% sure they aren’t at risk for any sexually transmitted diseases is not to have sex with anybody. Most people who are ever sexually active in their lives will get at least one STD, but by getting into good sexual habits, you can ensure you never have to worry.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, STDs in Adolescents and Young Adults. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats18/adolescents.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sexual Risk Behaviors Can Lead to HIV, STDs, & Teen Pregnancy. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/sexualbehaviors/index.htm
- National Institutes of Health, US National Library of Medicine, The estimated lifetime probability of acquiring human papillomavirus in the United States. (2014.) Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25299412
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Human Papillomavirus, Understanding HPV Coverage. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hpv/partners/outreach-hcp/hpv-coverage.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Substance Use and Sexual Risk Behaviors Among Youth. (2018.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/substance-use/pdf/dash-substance-use-fact-sheet.pdf