You might think of sexually transmitted diseases as a problem only for teens and young adults, but since the advent of dating apps, STD cases have skyrocketed even as STD testing has declined, a tragic combination that has led to nearly 20 million new cases of the diseases each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The latest CDC data show that total rates of STD infections grew sharply over the past two years. Syphilis saw the biggest increase—rising 19 percent in 2015 from just the previous year—it rose by 27 percent among women alone, and the rate of congenital syphilis (passed from pregnant women to their fetus) went up by 6 percent. Some 1.5 million cases of chlamydia were recorded in 2015, a jump of nearly 6 percent from 2014, and cases of gonorrhea grew by almost 13 percent from the previous year. While young adults ages 15 to 24 were still the heaviest-hit demographic, accounting for two-thirds of diagnoses last year, adults 65 and older saw astonishing increases. In this age bracket, chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea rose by about 52 percent, 65 percent, and 90 percent respectively.
These diseases are highly treatable with antibiotics, but because of embarassment, lack of symptoms, or lack of healthcare—budget cuts to state and local programs have eroded our healthcare system’s ability to test and treat STDs—many people don’t get prompt medical attention. And unfortunately, untreated STDs can cause a host of complications, including pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, premature birth and stillbirth, certain cancers, brain damage, stroke, and even death. What’s more, gonorrhea is becoming resistant to even some of the last resort antibiotics used to treat it.
Jonathan Mermin, MD, MPH, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, has said we need to expand and rebuild services that treat STDs—or the number of infections, as well as the economic burden, will continue to soar.
The good news is STDs are preventable. Although abstinence—which means no oral, anal, or vaginal sex—is still the only guaranteed way to avoid becoming infected with a STD, condoms are highly effective when used every time. (Here’s what happens to your body when you stop having sex.) The CDC has found that though most people report using condoms the first time, only a quarter report using it every time in a four-week span, leaving them vulnerable to contracting a sexually transmitted disease. It’s important to note, however, that condoms are not as effective in the prevention of the HPV and herpes viruses, which can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t protect yourself—no matter what your age or stage of life. (These myths about HPV could damage your health.)