STDs and Older Adults

Most people think sexually-transmitted diseases are just a young person’s concern. Some people often assume that it is the younger generation that are at a greater risk for sexually transmitted infections or diseases, such as …

Most people think sexually-transmitted diseases are just a young person’s concern. Some people often assume that it is the younger generation that are at a greater risk for sexually transmitted infections or diseases, such as HIV.  However, recent data suggests that young adults are actually using condoms more consistently than seniors. The truth of the matter is, STDs can affect anyone at any age, even those over 55. Many silver haired foxes do not realize how vulnerable they are to (STDs) and (STIs). Plus, older retirees believe that because they cannot get pregnant, they cannot get sexually transmitted infections or diseases. According to a 2009 and 2005 study, the reported syphilis cases of 55 to 60 age group increased from 60 percent to 70 percent.  In addition, incidences of chlamydia rose 27 percent among all ages, while doubling among the 55 to 64 age group. Another study done more recently shared that rates of several STDs, including gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis, have been rising among those over 55 and older over the past two decades. The study shows statistical increases for both sexes and also ethnicities. 

Many experts have been urging older adults to use protection while being sexually active.  This could be due to a belief that talking about sex and STD prevention is so taboo in our society. Which is quite tragic for everyday citizens.  STDs can carry many different health risks, especially for those over 50. Those over 50 don’t always feel comfortable asking their primary care physician about symptoms to recognize when it comes to sexually-transmitted diseases, or vice-versa. Many can be passed from one person to the next through any kind of sexual activity. Unfortunately, most seniors don’t get themselves tested routinely like they should., they are often unaware when and how they contracted the STD. If you are sexually active, even with just one partner, both should be tested on a regular basis. Most seniors see their primary care doctor at least twice a year for normal check-ups. So consider doubling or tripling that if you are sexually active.

Below are several types of STDs that are common among adults and five common STDs signs that seniors should be aware of if they find themselves infected or expect they are. If any of these occur, notify your health care provider to be properly tested.

Here is a list of STDs from the CDC website:

  • Chlamydia: A sexually transmitted infection, caused by bacteria. Most people do not experience symptoms in the initial stages; however, it can cause health problems later on. 
  • Gonorrhea: A bacterial infection of the genital tract. Bacteria can also grow in your mouth, throat, eyes and anus. It generally appears within 10 days after exposure.
  • Hepatitis: A viral infection that can affect your liver. It is highly contagious. There are three types; hepatitis A, B, and C. Both B and C are more likely to occur when it comes to STDs.
  • Herpes: a viral infection, which is caused by varicella-zoster. Most people receive a painful rash with blisters.
  • HIV/AIDS: A viral infection that attacks a person’s immune system. It is transmitted through blood contact and can last many years. Many people do not recover from it. However, there are some medications and treatments that lesson symptoms.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV): It is a transmitted virus, passed on through genital contact. It can also be passed through by skin-to-skin contact.
  • Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID): An infection of the female reproductive organs, including uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, and cervix. It often causes pelvic pain, vaginal discharge and people may sometimes have fever-like symptoms.
  • Syphilis: A bacteria infection that is a STD disease, affecting the genital areas, skin and mucous membranes. There are three stages — primary, secondary, and tertiary.
  • Trichomonas: A microscopic, one-celled parasite. It commonly spreads during sexual intercourse with someone who probably already has the infection. Most men get this issue, however, women can also contract it.

For more information on these, and other STD symptoms, go to the mayo clinic website.

1. Bumps or Sores

Bumps sores, warts or blisters near or on your genitals, can be very painful and unpleasant to deal with. Some symptoms can clear up fast, but comes back a few days to a week later. Even if the condition clears up without treatment, you should still get treated in cases the condition worsens.  Syphilis can cause a painless firm sore or multiple sores where the infection enters the body.  Herpes, on the other hand, produces painful, bubble-like blisters.  Chancroids and HPV can produce bumps in the genital area.  Engaging in anal or oral sex can also cause bumps and blisters on your lips, around your anus, or mouth. 

2. Itching and Irritation

Both men and women can experience itching and irritation in and around the genitals. In some cases, vaginal discharge could be a sign of a yeast infection. On the other hand, for men, trichomoniasis can cause tiny parasites to appear. The good news is that it can be easily treated with an antibiotic. Over-the-counter medication is not always the answer. If you have persistent itching; however, insist on an in-person exam. Do NOT self diagnose. Trichomoniasis can also cause itching and irritation inside the penis. Intense itching could be crabs or scabies, and these are highly contagious, skin parasitic insects spread through sexual contact.

3. Vaginal Bleeding

Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and postmenopausal vaginal bleeding between periods is also possible. For women, if you are still menstruating, this is something to watch for, especially after intercourse. Herpes sores can cause bleeding as well. Anal sex, may also cause rectum bleeding.

4. Unusual Discharge

Gonorrhea causes a discharge from the genitals, along with chlamydia and trichomoniasis.  For men, if you are experiencing penile drip or oozing, this is obviously not normal and you should have it checked as soon as possible . Although discharge is more common for women, if you notice an odor or a yellow or green tint, seek help by contacting your health care provider. 

5. Burning Urination

In some people, A burning or stinging sensation can occur while urinating. This could be a sign of an urinary tract infection, commonly called a UTI. Many older adults are already prone to UTIs, due to inadequate cleaning or bathing. However, they can be a sign of having an STD. Both  gonorrhea and chlamydia are often the cause of the UTI. However, herpes and trichomoniasis may be the reason as well. 

What are some risk factors for STDs in older adults?

Many older adults that go through a divorce or a death of a spouse later in life, may find themselves dating once again. With more people living longer, they are remaining sexually active, even into their 60’s or 70’s. Although the chances of getting pregnant is slim, there is an increased risk of other factors to be concerned with. Having safe sex can protect you from these receiving unpleasant conditions. Unfortunately, most seniors are not educated in safe sex practices. So, the chances of transmission of diseases are higher, especially HIV.  Below are just a few of the most common risk factors for seniors to be aware of while being sexually active later in life. 

Practice Safe Sex
  1. Not wearing a condom: most seniors do not consider wearing a condom or some type of protection later in life, due to the fact they have a less of a chance of getting pregnant. 
  2. Sexual aids: with conditions such as erectile dysfunction, there are now treatments or medication such as Viagra, to help senior stay active in bed. These are widely accepted and are used to continue having a productive sex life with your partner or spouse. However, the medication doesn’t prevent infections from STDs.
  3. Prescription hormone medication: Although not made directly for sexual aids, both progesterone and estrogen creams can help women be more comfortable when having sex with their partner. For example, testosterone-replacement drugs have a tendency to boost libido in both men and women.
  4. Unconcerned with STDs: Most older adults simply are not worried with STDs or believe they won’t contract one. Some don’t practice safe sex at all. In many cases, seniors do not even get tested on a regular basis. 
  5. Age factor: Due to being older, they believe that they can’t get a STD.
  6. Existing health conditions: With more chances of having pre-existing problems, many conditions can weaken a senior’s immune system, which may leave them more prone to a STD infection.
  7. Late diagnosis: in some cases, it is often too late to get treated for a STD, due to not being properly educated beforehand.
  8. Sexual history: Many older adults are just plain reluctant to discuss or talk about the potential sex problems of the past with a new partner. Even though unpleasant, it is highly recommended to share about sexual issues with a partner that may not be aware of your sexual activities of the past.

The Connection between Nursing Homes and STDs

Seniors who live in a retirement setting, whether assisted living or nursing home don’t necessarily stop having sex. Actually, the rates of STDs are growing among those living in retirement homes. In fact, statistics show that the rise of STDs are at its highest, compared to twenty or thirty years ago. Keep on mind that seniors in assisted living facilities are still physically active. They may still do their own food shopping; although, some may have a caregiver go with them. So, it is not surprising to hear that they are sexually active as well. 

However, there are other concerns to consider. By the time seniors are living in either nursing homes or assisted living places, there is a higher chance of critical illnesses, such as dementia. In fact, almost half of people living in long-term care facilities have some form of dementia.  Some dementia patients develop disinhibition, which can make a person act hypersexual, meaning desiring to or wanting to have sex more or often than normal. As a result, the older adult becomes more susceptible to STDs. 

How STDs and STIs have impacted the world as a whole.

According to the WHO, there are more than 1 million STIs being diagnosed daily. In fact an estimated 374 million new infections were found in 2020 alone, with 1 of 4 being STIs. Out of eight possible STIs/STDs, four are curable (chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis). The incurable ones are known as viral infections, such as hepatitis B, herpes simplex virus (HSV), HIV, and human papillomavirus (HPV). Also, many STIs have serious implications to your health, not just to the infected area. Sometimes other infections that a person has can transmit to other areas, causing a higher chance of the STI to develop. An example of this is when a person has any broken teeth or sores in the mouth and participates in oral sex before getting properly treated. The other participating partner may develop an STI in the genital areas as a result. STIs, such as herpes, gonorrhea and syphilis also have an increased risk of HIV. 

More on STIs and STDs

Chronic diseases and infections related to STIs and STDs are rising, and it is not only affecting older adults. Here are some stats on how many it has impacted: 

  •  Over 490 million living with genital herpes
  •  Approximately 300 million women have an HPV infection
  • About 296 million are living with chronic hepatitis B on a global scale
  • An estimated 820,000 deaths occurred due to Hepatitis B
  • Gonorrhea and chlamydia are linked to pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility in women.
  • HPV infection can also cause cervical and other cancers.
  • Mother-to-child transmission of STIs may sometimes result in problems at birth; such as stillbirth, neonatal death, low-birth weight and prematurity, sepsis, neonatal conjunctivitis, and congenital deformities.
  • An infection left untreated for years, can lead to long-term health issues, such as HIV, and cardiovascular and neurological problems
  • For those who have Medicare Part B (Medical Insurance), then STI screenings for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and hepatitis B are usually covered once every 12 months.