Behind the Headlines

Thursday April 2 2009

Many older people do not feel the need to use protection with new partners

Adults over 45 years old are taking chances with their sexual health and are at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs) when starting new relationships, according to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain.

In a survey of more than 2,000 adults, one-third of people in the 45+ age group believed it was unlikely or very unlikely that they would catch an STI when having unprotected sex with a new partner or someone who isn’t their current partner.

When compared with teenagers, twice as many people in this older age group thought that their risk was “next to nothing”. The survey also revealed that a quarter of them did not use protection with new partners.

The RPSGB say that while the majority of safe sex messages are targeted at teenagers, older adults beginning new relationships later in life need advice too.

What is the basis for the news coverage of STIs? 

YouGov carried out a survey of 2,258 adults in the UK aged over 18 years old on behalf of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, which is the regulatory body for pharmacists in the UK. The survey asked a number of questions on sexual health habits, including knowledge and use of contraception. Responses were broken down by gender, age group and geographic region.

Are STIs a problem in the UK?   

Unprotected sex puts anyone at risk of sexually transmitted infections, regardless of their age.

In the UK, genital chlamydia (a bacterial infection) is the most common STI diagnosed. It is often called the silent epidemic because symptoms often go unnoticed. The infection can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which causes infertility in women if left untreated. Although more common in the under-25-year-olds, chlamydia still affects people over 45. The Health Protection Agency reports an increase of 1.6 times in the number of new cases of chlamydia infection between 1998 and 2007 in the 45 to 64-year-old age group.

New cases of all STIs have increased quite dramatically across most age groups since 1998. Some STIs (herpes, chlamydia, warts) rose between 2006 and 2007, affecting all age groups.

What are the symptoms of an STI?  

An STI can present itself in different ways, mostly with genital symptoms. Signs of a possible STI can include:

  • blisters
  • warts
  • abnormal discharge
  • abnormal bleeding
  • pain during intercourse
  • pain during urination
  • rash or irritation on or around the genitals

However, many people with an STI will not have symptoms. This is particularly true with chlamydia where up to 75% of infected people do not have any reason to think they are infected.

Symptoms of some STIs take a long time to appear. For example, genital warts, which are caused by a virus may only develop months or years after infection. In addition, infection with other sexually transmitted infections such as HIV or hepatitis B or C may be asymptomatic or may have general symptoms, e.g. flu-like symptoms in HIV, or abdominal symptoms and jaundice in hepatitis.

What to do if you think you have an STI?   

Sexual health is an issue for anyone who is having sex, regardless of their age. Condoms can help protect against STIs. If you think you may have an STI, you can get help and advice from:

  • pharmacies
  • GP surgeries
  • GUM (genito-urinary medicine) clinics
  • community contraception clinics

Sexual health check-ups are free and confidential for everyone in the UK. You do not have to give any personal details, or even your real name, if you do not want to. You may be asked personal questions about your sexual behaviour so that the doctor can diagnose and treat you more effectively.  It is best if you try to answer these honestly. STIs can be diagnosed from symptoms, but are usually confirmed using blood or urine tests, or through swabs (urethral or cervical).

If you have an STI, it is important that your current and previous sexual partners are informed so that they can also be treated, preventing the infection spreading to others. If you prefer, GUM clinics can do this on your behalf through anonymous partner notification schemes.

How can STIs be prevented?

Many STIs can be treated with antibiotics. Some, such as HIV, cannot be cured, although antiviral treatments may be given to control the HIV ‘viral load’, i.e. the number of virus particles present in the body. It is also sometimes possible to prevent the development of HIV by giving a course of drug treatment immediately after exposure (e.g. unprotected sex with a person who is infected), although this can have unpleasant side effects and is not guaranteed to prevent infection.

The best way to prevent getting an STI is to practise safer sex, which includes wearing condoms.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Many over-45s 'ignore STI risks. BBC online, April 2 2009

Links to the science

RSPGP press release, April 2 2009

Selected STI diagnoses made at GUM clinics in the UK: 1998 - 2007

 

 

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