Sexually Transmitted Infections in Teens: An overview of an uncomfortable topic

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Photo by Brunopp

Photo by Brunopp

By Yolanda Evans, MD, MPH
From Seattle Children’s Teenology 101 weblog

This is the start of an entire series on sexually transmitted infections (STI’s) in teens. Rather than starting the series with gruesome pictures or detailed descriptions of specific infections, let’s talk a bit about teens and sexuality.

A normal part of adolescence is developing physically and emotionally. As teens, we start to discover who we are attracted to and what we are looking for in a partner. We also start to experiment with relationships. Friendships may become more intense and we rely more on approval from peers than from family.

At the same time, we start to have crushes and relationships with potential romantic partners. Sometimes these relationships lead to sex, and sex has consequences.

A consequence could be more intense feelings for a partner or realizing you are not ready to be in a committed relationship; it could be pregnancy, or it could be an infection.

Sexually transmitted infections are nothing new, they’ve plagued famous authors, musicians, husbands, and wives for centuries. In this day and age, we can treat and cure many STI’s with antibiotics, yet some are still incurable (though we may be able to treat symptoms) and antibiotic resistance is a growing concern.

STI’s can lead to feeling anger and shame, but can also cause serious infection and even infertility if not treated. In the US, teens and young adults ages 15-24 account 25% of the populations but contribute to most of the STI’s diagnosed each year (>50%). The good news is that STI’s, with all the consequences, are preventable.

Abstinence (not having sex at all) is the only way to prevent STI’s 100% of the time, but condoms and routine screening are the next best way to stay safe if a teen decides to start having sex.

Over the course of this series, I’ll go into details about specific infections that anyone (not just teens) can get from having sex. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I’ll talk about the infections that are common.

Even though I’ll discuss specific infections, I want to remind parents that they can help keep their teens safe and healthy by communicating.

Keep an open dialogue going about your ideas of a healthy romantic relationship.What are your opinions about sex? What are your expectations for your teen about dating and intimacy? Are your teen’s friends dating? Do you know if their friends are having sex? Have you communicated with your teen in a way that would make them feel comfortable asking you questions about their body’s development and/or sexual activity? Have they asked about condoms and birth control? Have you brought up the topics of sexuality, birth control, and safe sex practices?

A lot of these questions can be uncomfortable to discuss with our own adult friends, let alone our children. If you aren’t comfortable bringing up the topic, schedule a visit with your teen’s health care provider and ask them for tips on how to start the conversation.

Photo courtesy of Brunopp

About Yolanda Evans, MD, MPH

Yolanda-Evans-MD-MPH_avatar-100x100My work is a ‘dream come true’ and it’s what I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember. I have the privilege of getting to know some amazing teens and hearing things about them that they may not have told anyone before. When I’m not working, I like trying new foods, traveling around the world, spending time with family and friends, and enjoying the fresh Washington air (though not quite as fresh as Alaska where I grew up, but very close!) – Yolanda Evans, M.D., Adolescent Medicine at Seattle Children’s

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