Certain medical conditions such as hypertension and diabetes are often referred to as “silent killers” because they can cause someone harm without any warning signs.
Equally as silent, due to their lack of symptoms and because people are hesitant to discuss them, are sexually transmitted infections (STIs) like chlamydia and human papillomavirus (HPV).
If left untreated STIs can cause serious problems, particularly in women whose long term risks include infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and cervical cancer.
Despite years of public health measures designed to promote “safe sex,” STIs are still on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), half of all new STIs occur in 15- to 24-year-olds, and one in four teenage girls has an STI.
There are roughly 19 million news cases of STIs in the U.S. each year, and in California alone more than 1.2 million cases of chlamydia and nearly 350,000 cases of gonorrhea were reported in 2008.
“We see a lot of STIs in teenagers and young adults because they are more likely to have multiple sexual partners,” says Scripps Clinic gynecologist Bruce Kahn, MD. “Unfortunately, people in this age group often avoid talking to their partner or even their doctor about things like sexual history and STI screenings, because they feel embarrassed or ashamed.”
The good news is many STIs are easily treatable, often with a simple course of antibiotics —provided they are detected early. For sexually active people, particularly those in high risk groups, routine STI screenings are essential. Because many STIs are asymptomatic and spread easily from person to person, someone who is infected might not realize it.
Dr. Kahn advises annual STI screenings for anyone who is less than 25 years old and sexually active, as well as anyone older than 25 who has multiple sexual partners, who has had a previous STI, or is pregnant (infections like chlamydia can be passed from mother to child, and cause serious harm to the baby).
“Other than abstinence, there is no foolproof method of preventing an STI — which is why using protection and getting screened often is so important,” Dr. Kahn says. “I also encourage women younger than 26 to consider getting the HPV vaccination."
The vaccine is usually given in a series of three shots, and can block roughly 70 – 80 percent of infections, including the four most common strains of HPV that can lead to genital warts or cervical cancer.
“When we test our patients for STIs, we ask about their sexual history in order to get a thorough understanding of their risk based on their number of sexual partners, regular use of condoms, and previous history of infection,” Dr. Kahn says.
“Our conversation is strictly confidential and done in a sensitive, non-judgmental manner. As physicians, our sole purpose is protecting our patients’ health. And when it comes to STIs, our goal is to protect our patients and their partners.”
STI testing is quick, easy and painless, and can be performed by most primary care doctors, medical clinics and family planning centers.
If you’re looking for a new physician who can provide comprehensive women’s health services including STI screening, Scripps Clinic gynecologists offer thorough, age-based care at six locations in San Diego County.