If you are wondering when is the best time to talk about sex with your teen, the answer is “the sooner the better”. You definitely don’t want to be having this conversation while driving to the pharmacy to fill a prescription for a sexually transmitted disease (STD). The truth is that about 80% of teens are sexually active by the time they reach the age of 19 and approximately ½ of the 20 million reported cases of STDs annually are in people aged 15 to 24 years old. These reported cases include some of the most common STDs, gonorrhea and chlamydia, as well as the potentially deadly human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). So protect your child by starting the conversation early, and keeping an open line of communication throughout their teen years. Talking to your teen about STDs and how to prevent them can protect them from temporary discomfort, as well as lifelong health problems, and it may very well save their life.
What’s at Stake?
Sexually transmitted diseases (STD) are contagious illnesses that are passed on through oral, anal, and vaginal sexual activity. Individual infections in this group of illnesses can be caused by both bacteria and viruses, and can be passed from one person to another through the exchange of bodily fluids, such as semen, vaginal secretions, blood, or saliva, as well as through exposure from skin-to-skin contact. This means that there are varying degrees of risk associated with different behaviors, depending on the particular illness in question. The only way to completely eliminate the risk of infection is through abstinence from all forms of sexual contact. It is important to note that STDs can be contracted through oral, anal, and vaginal sexual activity. Lesions and infections that are generally found in the genital area can also become active in other areas of the body such as the mouth, eyes, or throat. For this reason, any conversation about STDs with your teenager should include these explicit risks and ways to avoid them.
Common Viral STDs
HIV, herpes, hepatitis, and human papillomavirus (HPV) are STDs caused by viruses. The treatments available for these illnesses help to suppress or control the infection, but are not curative. While most STDs caused by viruses will never completely go away, 80-90% of HPV cases will clear up in a couple years, especially among teenagers.
There are a number of strains of the HPV virus. Some strains cause genital warts, while others may cause cancer, including cervical, mouth, and throat cancer. The virus is passed by contact to skin, so barrier contraceptives like condoms are not guaranteed to prevent infection. In fact, most sexually active adolescents and young adults will be exposed to this virus. The good news is that there is a very effective vaccine available to prevent HPV. The vaccine is recommended as early as 9 years of age when the immune system is strong, and can be administered up to the age of 26 years to both males and females.
Herpes is another viral STD that can be passed by skin-to-skin contact; so again, condoms are not 100% effective in preventing the transmission of this virus. The illness is characterized by painful lesions that frequently occur in or near the genital region, but may also be found near the rectum and in the mouth. Medications are available to treat the infection and suppress outbreaks, however, this virus will remain silent in the nervous system and may cause symptoms throughout the life of someone infected.
HIV is a viral STD that can greatly affect someone’s ability to fight infection. If the illness progresses to AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), there is a great risk of death from an overwhelming infection. Today the treatment of HIV is very successful, however, it requires a life-long commitment to taking a very strict regimen of multiple medications with many potential side effects to suppress this virus. Consequently, taking measures to prevent infection through the practices of safe sex is a much more agreeable option.
Common Bacterial STDs
Trichamoniasis, chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis are all caused by bacteria and are treatable with antibiotics. However, if untreated, some of these illnesses can have severe long-term effects including infertility and death. The best way to prevent these complications is to promote behaviors that prevent infection and to be able to recognize symptoms so that prompt treatment can be sought.
Trichamoniasis is one of the most common bacterial STDs and is curable with antibiotics. This infection results in inflammation of the cervix and can also increase the risk of contracting a viral STI. Symptoms include burning and foul-smelling discharge, and if untreated, can lead to chronic inflammation and infertility.
Chlamydia is another bacterial STD and is the most common treatable cause of infertility today. The symptoms of this illness can include burning with urination and foul smelling vaginal discharge, but sometimes no symptoms are present. Spread of this infection through oral sex can cause a sore throat and eye infections.
Gonorrhea infection may cause no symptoms, but can also cause vaginal burning, discharge and painful intercourse. The rate of this infection in people 15 to 29 years of age is twice that of the rest of the population. While antibiotics may be used as treatment, there has been an increase in antibiotic resistant gonorrhea.
Syphilis can often be identified by a painless sore on the penis or genital area can be successfully treated with antibiotics, however if it is not treated, it will progress to a more chronic illness, and eventually death. There are some cases where there are no visible symptoms, however, so practicing safe sex and getting tested often is always a wise choice.
Picking the Right Time and Place
Again, discussing STDs with your teenager is something that should happen sooner rather than later, however even later is better than no talk at all. The opportunity may arise if you pay attention to what is going on in your child’s life, or to cues they may give you. As soon as your child has any questions about sex is a good time to expand the topic to include STDs. As with many dangers, adolescents often have a sense of “it won’t happen to me”, so it is important to stress that the organisms that cause these infections are very prevalent and they do not discriminate based on age. In fact, younger people are most at risk.
Your opportunity may also come as a result of a story in the media, a movie or television show, or a topic addressed in school. In fact, these situations may make your teen identify more closely with the topic and find more relevance in the information you are sharing. Remember that by the time your child is 19, there is a high probability that they are sexually active and the best time to educate your child is before their first encounter. For this reason, the HPV vaccine can be administered as early as 9 years of age, and creates a great opportunity to explain the reason for vaccination and to expand to other STDs.
Starting young also gives you the opportunity to reinforce your message, so after that initial conversation, maintain an open dialogue, giving your teen the chance to ask the questions that are important to them. If you are not presented with an opening to bring up the topic of STDs, then it is important for your child’s health to make one. If you don’t feel comfortable bringing it up, then ask your child’s doctor to address STDs and safe sexual practices. Once the topic has been introduced, you may feel more comfortable in asking your teen if they have any more questions.
What They Need to Know
Teenagers need to know the facts about STDs – what they are, what causes them, how they are spread, what their symptoms look like, what long-term consequences they may cause, how they are treated and most importantly, how to prevent them. In addition, many people with STDs may have no symptoms, so your sexually active teen should have routine screening tests. Remember that for you to educate your child, you need to be informed. Do your research so that the information you share is accurate and up to date. There is a great deal of information online, but your family nurse practitioners can be a great resource for you, as well as your ally in educating and protecting your teen.
A great place to start is asking your teen what they already know. This way you can reinforce the information they already have and correct any misconceptions. Make sure that they understand that there is usually no way to know if their partner is infected and that every sexual encounter has potential risks. The only way to absolutely protect against STDs is abstinence. Short of this, the best defense is using a latex barrier, such as a condom, with every sexual encounter, whether it is vaginal, anal, or oral. And even then, some infections like herpes or HPV can be spread from skin-to-skin contact, and thus are not completely prevented by condoms. Additionally, bodily fluids on fingers or objects can also transfer the organisms that cause these infections.
Tell your teen that latex and plastic condoms are effective in preventing most STDs, and you should also explain and demonstrate how to use a condom. The correct way to apply a condom is on an erect penis, unrolling it all the way to the base of the penis, holding the tip of the condom to leave extra room at the end. It is important that they understand how to use a condom, to never use a male and female condom at the same time, and to never reuse a condom. Also let them know that only water-based lubricants should be used with a condom because petroleum jelly or oils will break down the rubber of the condom. Don’t forget to tell your teen where to get a condom, or even better, give them some and tell them to let you know if they need more.
Finally, leave the door open for your child to come to you with questions or concerns. This may be a delicate and sometimes embarrassing topic, but reassure your teen that they can feel safe with you; that there will be no judgment, but only support and love. Maintaining open communication with your teen may be their best defense against unnecessary suffering and lingering health challenges.
At FamilyCare of Kent, our goal is to support you and your family in achieving your best health. We provide care to families in all walks of life, and hope to instill positive and healthy values that can be passed on for generations. If you would like more information on STDs and how to talk to your teenager about safe sexual practices, please call us at (253) 859-2273 today, or request an appointment online. Our exceptional nurse practitioners at FamilyCare of Kent look forward meeting with you.