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Approximately 20 million new STD cases emerge every year, though most go unreported. Adults over 50 years old make up a good chunk of this figure, despite senior citizens generally being less sexually active.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans over the age of 50 constitute around half of the population suffering from HIV.
Adults over 50 should pay special care to make sure they are keeping themselves safe and not transmitting sexually transmitted diseases to others.
This article aims to serve as a comprehensive guide on STDs, written specifically for seniors over 50, giving you information on the types of STDs, how they are transmitted, and treatment options.
What are Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)?
All infections that can be transmitted by sexual activity (not just intercourse) fall under the Sexually Transmitted Disease umbrella. These include the likes of Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea, Trichomoniasis, Pubic lice, Genital warts, Scabies, Syphilis, and Genital Herpes.
Viruses, bacteria, or parasites may cause sexually transmitted diseases, and they can be passed through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex. It should be noted, however, that using a condom – or other forms or protection – doesn’t completely eradicate the risk of picking up a sexually transmitted disease.
Special Considerations for the Over 50 Crowd
According to surveys, senior citizens are more sexually active these days than before due to advances in medication, which help fight against erectile dysfunction. This has led to a sharp increase in the prevalence of STDs in the elderly from the 1990s until now.
As you’ll learn in this guide, most STDs don’t show symptoms, particularly early on after infection, so in many cases, the only way to be diagnosed with an STD is via a medical check-up.
However, some seniors are embarrassed about being sexually active and are hesitant to speak with a doctor. Or, they may think just having occasional sex is unlikely to lead to infection. This isn’t the case, though, as some STDs can be picked up even during your first time having sex.
Furthermore, doctors may sometimes misdiagnose symptoms that are showing as a result of a sexually transmitted disease and instead attribute them to another disease prevalent in the elderly. Senior citizens may also shrug off these symptoms for the same reasons or just blame them for the aging process.
Many STDs can lead to serious, potentially life-threatening complications if they go undiagnosed and treated early on.
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How do You Get an STD?
Sexually transmitted diseases can be passed in several ways, not all of which involve sexual intercourse or even direct contact with another person.
Oral sex or even just kissing can result in STDs being passed around, as can sharing sex toys. Some STDs, such as HIV, may also be transmitted by sharing needles.
In many cases, it’s easier to contract an STI via gay anal sex than via heterosexual vaginal sex.
Most sexually transmitted diseases can even be passed on by pregnant mothers to their babies, so this is something to keep in mind.
It’s important to note that while condoms do significantly reduce the risk of infection, they don’t completely eradicate the risk of infection for most sexually transmitted diseases.
What are the Types of STDs?
There are many types of STDs, also known as STIs (sexually transmitted infections). However, some are far more common than others.
Here’s important information about some of the most common STDs in the elderly, with an outline of the symptoms they exhibit and other relevant information.
HIV and AIDs
As already mentioned, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus), in particular, is becoming increasingly prevalent among the elderly. It is a viral disease that damages the body’s immune system, and there’s currently no cure for it. However, there are several treatment options available.
Once HIV enters the body, it infects and damages CD4 cells (a type of immune cells that help the body fight off disease), eventually leading to other infections and cancers, which can be fatal.
The virus can’t be transmitted via “casual contact” or through the air – it can only be passed on via bodily fluids, such as blood, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, breast milk, and semen.
An untreated HIV patient may eventually develop AIDs (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). However, many don’t and can live long lives suffering from HIV.
At this point, a patient’s average life expectancy is just around three years, as their immune system is too weak to fight off the disease.
The time it takes from HIV to develop into AIDs varies from patient to patient. Still, if they are not undergoing treatment, it typically takes around 5-10 years year.
Specifically, an HIV patient whose CD4 cell count falls below 200 per cubic millimeter will be diagnosed with AIDS. However, there are other ways, as well.
Over one million people in the US currently have HIV, with 20 percent of this figure undiagnosed.
Patients usually experience flu-like symptoms for 2-6 weeks after contracting HIV. After this, they may not exhibit any noticeable symptoms for years to come. So it’s easy to see why many HIV cases are shrugged off as “just the flu” and end up going undiagnosed for many years.
This is especially an issue for senior citizens, as they may have weaker immune systems, so early diagnosis and treatment are critical.
The aforementioned flu-like symptoms include a rash, fever, sore throat, muscle pain, swollen glands, tiredness, and joint pain.
Again, it’s easy to see why it’s more challenging to diagnose HIV in the elderly, as they are likely to be suffering from symptoms, such as joint pain already.
Even though the symptoms go away fairly quickly, the virus continues to attack your immune system.
Once the immune system becomes sufficiently damaged, you will experience other, long-term symptoms, including weight loss, skin problems, recurrent infections, night sweats, and chronic diarrhea.
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Chlamydia is caused by a bacterial infection and often doesn’t result in any apparent symptoms. However, symptoms sometimes include green or yellow discharge from the genitals, lower abdominal pain, discomfort during sex, and pain when urinating.
Chlamydia is the most prevalent sexually transmitted disease in the United States, and many senior citizens carry this bacterial STI without knowing.
Although Chlamydia isn’t considered a serious disease, it can lead to more serious problems if left untreated including:
- Epididymal-orchitis (testicular inflammation)
- Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- Reactive arthritis
HPV (human papillomavirus)
Around 100 different viruses fall under the HPV umbrella. As with Chlamydia, HPV rarely results in symptoms being exhibited in patients, but some HPV strains may result in cancer or genital warts.
Cancers that can be caused by high-risk HPV strains include anal cancer, vaginal cancer, cervical cancer, head cancer, neck cancer, and vulval cancer.
HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases around, and most people are likely to get infected at some point in their lifetime.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection transmitted via sexual contact.
Once infected with syphilis, a patient is likely to develop a painless sore on either their genitals, mouth, or rectum. The infection is then passed on to others when they come into contact with this sore.
However, syphilis may not result in any symptoms for years. If you’re sexually active, you must go for regular check-ups regardless of your age.
Untreated syphilis can have very serious repercussions, including damage to the brain, heart, and other vital organs of the body.
There are several stages of this sexually transmitted bacterial infection, and each typically exhibits different symptoms, though there may be some overlap.
The first stage – primary syphilis – typically involves the emergence of a sore on your body, at the spot where you came into contact with the bacteria. This spot is known as a chancre, and you may develop one or several of them on your body.
It should be noted that they don’t form straight away – it takes around three weeks for the chancres to emerge after you come into contact with the bacteria. 3-6 weeks later, the chancres will heal by themselves, marking the start of the secondary syphilis phase.
Once the chancres heal, a rash, which usually isn’t itchy, will appear on the area a few weeks later, before potentially spreading to the rest of your body. They may even cover the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet. You may also find that sores emerge in your mouth and on your genitals.
Furthermore, you may also find that your muscles are aching, and you may experience hair loss, fevers, sore throat, in addition to swollen lymph nodes.
These symptoms often go away and reappear sporadically but may dissipate after just a few weeks.
After this phase, latent syphilis is next. At this point, you don’t experience any symptoms – and the disease may remain at this stage indefinitely – or it may move on to the tertiary stage.
Around 15-30 percent of people suffering from syphilis who don’t seek treatment end up suffering from tertiary syphilis, which may result in serious damage to your nerves, heart, bones, brain, among others.
Neurosyphilis (syphilis spreading to and damaging your brain and nervous system) and ocular syphilis (the disease spreading to your eyes) may occur at any stage of infection.
Gonorrhea is another STD that can lead to serious complications if left untreated. It is especially common among sexually active late teens and young adults, though it also affects many senior citizens today.
Gonorrhea affects men and women in different ways.
The majority of women with a gonorrhea infection won’t exhibit any symptoms. However, some may experience an increase in vaginal discharge, vaginal bleeding (even when not on their periods), and pain when urinating.
Men are far more likely to exhibit symptoms from gonorrhea than women. Such symptoms include pain or a burning sensation when urinating, swollen testicles, and discharge from the penis.
Furthermore, rectal gonorrhea infections in either men or women don’t usually result in symptoms. However, symptoms of a rectal gonorrhea infection may include anal soreness, itching, bleeding, and discharge, in addition to painful bowel movements.
Although not a huge concern for men over 50, untreated gonorrhea can lead to fertility issue in men, as it results in a condition which affects the tubes attached to the testicles. In some rare cases, untreated gonorrhea may spread to the blood and joints, which can potentially be life-threatening.
Women suffering from untreated gonorrhea may later suffer from pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), potentially leading to infertility, abdominal pain, and ectopic pregnancy (a rare case of pregnancy outside the mother’s womb.)
In both men and women, untreated gonorrhea may increase the chances of contracting or passing on HIV.
Hepatitis B is a viral, sexually transmitted disease that can infect the liver, leading to serious complications. Once contracted, the virus typically doesn’t exhibit symptoms immediately. Instead, it takes between a few weeks to around half a year for symptoms to appear, though sometimes they may only be minor or completely absent.
Common hepatitis B symptoms include nausea, lack of appetite, jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes), headaches, tiredness, and other flu-like symptoms.
Hepatitis B can be diagnosed with a blood test, which indicates a positive reaction to the hepatitis B surface antigen (this suggests your liver is producing and leaking hepatitis B protein into the bloodstream.)
This suggests you have chronic hepatitis B – a rare condition which only affects about 5 percent of adult hepatitis B patients.
Essentially, it means the virus has stayed in your body longer than usual and can lead to complications.
Approximately 20 percent of patients with chronic hepatitis B will develop cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) over the next one to two decades. Ten percent of cirrhosis patients will go on to develop liver cancer.
Treatment for Sexually Transmitted Disease
Most STDs are curable, though some are only treatable. In all cases, however, it is better to diagnose and begin treating the disease sooner rather than later.
This is especially true for HIV in adults over 50, as their immune systems may already be weakened, and they are susceptible to other diseases that may take advantage of their vulnerable immune system.
Acute hepatitis B can’t be treated, but you can take painkillers to relieve some of the symptoms. As for chronic hepatitis B, you may be prescribed medication to limit the spreading of the virus within the liver.
Antiretroviral therapy (ART), which consists of taking a daily regimen of anti-HIV drugs, can be used to treat HIV. Although this doesn’t cure patients of the virus, it can significantly increase their life expectancy and allow them to lead healthy lives, particularly if diagnosed early.
HIV patients undergo regular blood testing to monitor their progress and see how their body is reacting to the antiretroviral therapy.
AIDs is a lifelong illness for which there is no cure, and treatment options are also minimal. Treatment options for HPV are also limited, but unlike AIDs, it’s not a chronic or life-threatening illness.
Furthermore, there are treatment options for genital warts you may develop as a result of an HPV infection.
Other sexually transmitted diseases, such as gonorrhea, can be treated with a course of antibiotics, which are often administered via an injection or pills. Syphilis can be treated at all stages via a course of penicillin (an antibiotic). However, other antibiotics are available if you’re allergic to penicillin.
Chlamydia is treated via antibiotics, such as azithromycin or doxycycline, with a 1-2-week course being prescribed.
Additionally, your sexual partner(s) should also get checked and take anti-biotics if needed to reduce the chances of reinfection.
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A Quick Summary of Sexually Transmitted Disease Among the Over 50 Crowd
- Many sexually transmitted diseases are becoming more and more prevalent, particularly among the elderly.
- Viruses, bacteria, or parasites may cause STDs.
- STDs can be transmitted via sexual intercourse, the sharing of needles or sex toys, and many other ways.
- Sexually Transmitted Diseases may lead to long-term, potentially life-threatening conditions, so early diagnosis is very important.
- Most STDs may not show symptoms, at least not immediately, so it’s essential to get regular check-ups.
- Symptoms of the various Sexually Transmitted Diseases vary, from flu-like symptoms to joint pains and genital discharge.
- If you test positive for any sexually transmitted disease, you should notify all your recent sexual partners so they can also get tested and seek treatment.
- Sexually active senior citizens should be mindful that many STDs often exhibit symptoms that may be attributed to other diseases prevalent in the elderly.
- Common STDs among senior citizens include HIV, HPV, Hepatitis B, Chlamydia, and Syphilis.
- If left untreated, HIV may develop into AIDs – a lifelong, untreatable illness that leaves patients with a life expectancy of just around three years.
- If diagnosed early, HIV can be treated via a medication regimen, which significantly increases your life expectancy.
- Most STDs can be treated and cured via a course of anti-biotics – either administered as an injection or orally.
- If you have any questions or concerns about Sexually Transmitted Diseases, you should immediately consult with a medical professional.