STDs & Teens: A Reality Check

Sexually active teens have more to worry about than pregnancy; STDs are also a problem.


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Of the 12 million cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that occur each year, 3 million (or 25 percent) are among teenagers. About 13 percent of youth ages 13 to 19 contract an STD each year.

Those statistics are enough to unnerve even the most grounded parent, which is why abstinence is so important for teens. However, knowledge is power, and it's crucial that you -- and your teen -- understand the risks involved in catching an STD.

Common STDs

Chlamydia. This most common bacterial STD is found in 20 to 40 percent of teens having sex outside of marriage. Up to 40 percent of all girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are infected -- the highest chlamydia infection rate of any age group. Chlamydia often has no overt symptoms, and if untreated can cause sterility in both males and females.

Human Papilloma Virus (HPV). Up to 15 percent of sexually active teenage girls are infected with HPV. The majority of those infected have a strain that has been linked to cervical cancer.

Genital Warts. Viral growths that appear on the external genital organs, genital warts infect as many as a third of all sexually active teenagers. No permanent cure exists for these growths, with at least 20 percent recurring following removal. In females, there is an association between genital warts and cervical cancer.

Herpes. This is a viral infection that, undiagnosed, can cause miscarriage or stillbirth during pregnancy. There is no cure.

Gonorrhea. A highly contagious bacterial infection affecting the penis in men and the vagina in women, gonorrhea, left untreated, can cause sterility, arthritis, and heart trouble.

Syphilis. A serious, highly contagious, progressive bacterial disease that can affect all parts of the body -- the brain, bones, spinal cord, heart, and reproductive organs. 

AIDS. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a disease in which the body's natural defense system is disabled, allowing other bacterial and viral infections to become deadly. 

Since the time between infection with HIV and the onset of AIDS may be several years, however, many young adults diagnosed with AIDS undoubtedly contracted the disease while teenagers. In fact, half of all HIV infections in the U.S. occur among persons under 25. There is as yet no cure for AIDS. Although new drugs are increasing the survival time for people who get AIDS and researchers are making progress in understanding it, the disease is still ultimately fatal.

Protective Measures

Sometimes, despite a parent's best efforts to the contrary, teenagers do become sexually active. Many parents, upon discovering their teen is sexually active, react with anger and rejection. Doing so is not going to help matters. Rather than recriminations, what sexually active teens need is help in thinking through their options.

The first thing a parent needs to help their sexually active teen think about is safety. This means encouraging teens who are sexually active to take precautions to prevent both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Oral Contraceptives. The most effective means for preventing pregnancy are oral contraceptives or birth control pills. A female taking oral contraceptives -- which are available by prescription only -- has less than a 1 percent chance of getting pregnant.

But to be effective, oral contraceptives must be taken daily. Herein lies one problem. Teenagers are notoriously forgetful. Forgetting to take oral contraceptives regularly can render them ineffective in preventing pregnancy. Another limitation of oral contraceptives is that they do nothing to prevent the transmission of STDs.

Condoms. One "over the counter" method for preventing pregnancy is the latex condom. To be effective, latex condoms must be used correctly. Unfortunately, teenagers are often embarrassed or reluctant to use condoms. Even when used correctly, condoms are only 70 to 90 percent effective at preventing pregnancy and the transmission of STDs.

Teens need to know that while condoms reduce the possibility of pregnancy and of catching an STD, condoms do not eliminate the risk entirely. As such, they make sex safer, not 100 percent safe.

Other Options. Other means of contraception include hormonal implants, intrauterine devices (IUDs), spermicides, contraceptive sponges, diaphragms, and cervical caps. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

While it is important to talk to sexually active teens about these alternatives, they need to know that none of these methods protects 100 percent against both pregnancy and STDs. And, certainly, none protects against the emotional heartache that can result from a relationship breaking up following sexual intimacy.

Encouraging Abstinence. One other option to discuss with a sexually active teen is "secondary virginity." Often, we act as if once a teen becomes sexually active, there is no way that teen can ever hope to restrain himself or herself from sexual activity in the future. This is not so.

There are many examples of teens (and even unmarried adults) who have recommitted themselves successfully to sexual abstinence after having been sexually active. Given that no contraceptive is 100 percent effective in preventing both pregnancy and STDs, parents of sexually active teens should encourage their teen to consider this option as well.

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