Why it’s not too soon to talk about STIs with your teen

Why it’s not too soon to talk about STIs with your teen

It’s an essential part of their overall well-being

Family relaxing at home

Your child is becoming a young adult now. It can be uncomfortable to discuss reproductive health with them, but it’s an essential part of their overall well-being. Your teen’s doctor has earned their trust and can help make these sensitive conversations easier. Take a deep breath. The doctor is there to help. Plus, regular screenings for sexually transmitted infections will help keep your child healthy now and in the future.

From well-child checkups to soccer physicals, and immunizations to earaches— your child’s health care provider has been there for it all. And now that your child is a teenager, there may be some new items on the agenda. Pediatricians or family doctors may begin to discuss contraceptive care, reproductive health, and screenings for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Your child is growing up, and their doctor is doing what doctors do best: providing the right care at the right time. “We’re all on the same side,” says David Bell, M.D., director of the young men’s clinic at Columbia University Medical Center in New York and president of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. “As doctors, we want the best for your teen — we want to help them stay healthy and reach their fullest potential.”

And reproductive health is a big part of that for teens of all genders. After all, STIs have been surging, with cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis increasing sharply in the past few years. More than half of all cases are among young men and women between ages 15 and 24. About 25 percent of all sexually active teen girls have an STI, including chlamydia — often without even knowing it. Also, because the environment in a young girl’s vagina isn’t completely mature, she’s more likely to develop an STI.

“Chlamydia doesn’t have any symptoms at first,” explains Michelle Rindos, M.D., an adolescent gynecologist at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville. “You might not notice anything until the infection has already caused scarring in the fallopian tubes, which can lead to infertility later on.”

STIs can be dangerous for boys, too. “There is some evidence that chlamydia may affect fertility in males by causing inflammation and scarring of the epididymis, where sperm are manufactured and stored,” says Dr. Bell.

And it’s not just future fertility: STIs can lead to a variety of other serious health complications for both men and women.

The good news: STIs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis can be cured, especially if they’re caught early. Human papillomavirus (HPV), another common STI, can be prevented with a vaccine, while herpes can be treated and stopped from spreading. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends routine STI screenings for young people who are sexually active.

So, when your child’s doctor asks you to step outside the exam room next time, don’t be surprised — and don’t be offended. “The doctor’s role is to be able to talk with your young person about all aspects of their health,” says Dr. Bell. “We know parents are important, but as they’ve probably already noticed, kids at this age are beginning to assert their independence. And part of helping them mature is allowing open, honest conversations with their doctor.”

It’s all about keeping your child healthy and happy and preparing them for a great life. Here’s what you and your teen can expect during an office visit:

Expect an STI screening

Through a face-to-face conversation or a questionnaire, the doctor will try to get a sense of what’s going on in your child’s life. If your teen is sexually active, screening is recommended — and easy. One simple urine test can determine the presence of both chlamydia and gonorrhea. Here are the CDC screening guidelines recommended for annual testing:

Chlamydia

  • All sexually active girls
  • All sexually active boys in areas with high chlamydia rates
  • Boys 13 and older who have same-sex relations           

Gonorrhea

  • All sexually active girls
  • Boys 13 and older who have same-sex relations

Syphilis

  • Boys over age 13 who have same-sex relations

HIV

  • Boys over age 13 who have same-sex relations
  • Any boy or girl who injects drugs
  • Any boy or girl whose partner has HIV

Expect contraceptive care

These are super-important formative years for your teens. An unwanted pregnancy can throw their lives and all their future plans off kilter, so talking about contraception is critical.

“For parents, it can be difficult to discuss our daughters’ sexual health,” says Dr. Rindos. “We may think we’re giving them permission for sexual activity — but that’s definitely not the case. Contraception is so important for their well-being, and our daughters are counting on us to help them.”

If your child is sexually active, contraceptive care will be on the agenda, says Dr. Rindos. “We always have a conversation about birth control,” she says. “I find that teens at this age might not be as responsible about taking a pill every day, so we tend to do long-acting reversible contraception, or LARC. There are implantable devices and long-term shots to prevent pregnancy.”

Dr. Bell discusses contraception with his male patients, too. “For young boys,” he explains, “the option is mainly condoms, so we talk about using them correctly. And we also encourage young men to be supportive toward their female partner. It’s important for them to think about dual protection, too, even if their partner is on birth control. After all, condoms protect against STDs but female birth control doesn’t.”