1 in 2 new cases of STIs occur among young people. How can we change this?
Sores? Blisters? Pus oozing from a genital area? Most of us don’t need Google to know that sexually transmitted diseases (STI) can be physically uncomfortable – and really yucky-feeling – to have. This discomfort is mirrored in how many of us feel about talking about STIs with teens. We need to get over this discomfort though, because half of all new cases of STIs occur among 15- to 24-year-olds . We need to move beyond our discomfort and start talking to young people to help them get and stay healthy.
I know it’s a difficult discussion, so here are 3 concrete things that you can talk to your teens about:
Many teens don’t think they are at risk for STIs
The most common reason that youth have never gotten tested for STIs is because they don’t think they’re at risk . Many think that if it is a real concern, their healthcare provider will be guaranteed to bring it up . Rather than relying on someone else, empower youth to be speak up and learn how to be in control of their own health. If teens are sexually active, they should ask to be tested – and not just when they notice symptoms. Many cases of STIs don’t have physical or visual symptoms. In fact, nine in ten cases of STIs in a study of high school students found that they didn’t notice any visible symptoms . Testing is the only way to know one’s status – and the only way to get treatment.
Teens are concerned about their privacy
Teens are worried about privacy – and for good reason . If the test shows up on their parent’s insurance bill, they might have to answer some uncomfortable questions. Many local public health clinics andoffer free or cheaper testing options than a typical provider’s office. Encourage youth to call these clinics and find out what kind of STI services they can access without telling their parents. This Guttmacher Institute document is a good place to start.
Some young people are worried about being seen by someone they know . If this resonates with your teen, suggest that they can go with a group of friends – things tend to be less scary in groups. Also remind them that family planning clinics offer a variety of services – so a visit there does not necessarily mean that one has an STI. Teens can also get free condoms, birth control information, and other tips about how to maintain their sexual health at public health and family planning clinics.
Access can be a huge barriers for teens
Sometimes, just knowing where to get tested can be a barrier to getting tested. Good news – the CDC has a website that helps locate sites near you: https://gettested.cdc.gov/
Also consider advocating for your local school to provide testing in their school health clinic.
So how do you broach the uncomfortable subject?
It might be uncomfortable for both you and your teen to talk about STI testing but remember that many teens are interested in learning how to make healthy sexual decisions. Consider bringing it up casually during an activity that you are doing together, like walking the dog or driving to the store . You don’t need to know all the tiny details. The important message is for them to get tested for STIs at least once a year (or more frequently, depending on your risk group) when they start having sex . That’s it!
Then, as with any good conversation, listen to any concerns your teen may have.
No need to close the door. Let your teen know that they can talk to you if they have any questions in the future. If that feels like too much, let your teen know that you are supportive and willing to help take them to a healthcare provider who can answer their questions.
For more resources on STI testing, get your questions answered at Sex, Etc.
Learn more about our research at Center for Innovative Public Health Research.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Emilie Chen for her contributions to this blog.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adolescents and Young Adults. 2016; http://www.cdc.gov/std/life-stages-populations/adolescents-youngadults.htm
 Cuffe KM, Newton-Levinson A, Gift TL, McFarlane M, Leichliter JS. Sexually transmitted infection testing among adolescents and young adults in the United States. J Adolesc Health.58(5):512-519. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2016.01.002.
 Cohen DA, Nsuami M, Martin DH, Farley TA. Repeated school-based screening for sexually transmitted diseases: A feasible strategy for reaching adolescents. Pediatrics. 1999;104(6):1281-1285.
 Tilson EC, Sanchez V, Ford CL, et al. Barriers to asymptomatic screening and other STD services for adolescents and young adults: Focus group discussions. BMC Public Health. 2004;4(1):1-8. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-4-21.
 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Talking with Your Teen about Preventing STDs. 2016; https://healthfinder.gov/healthtopics/category/health-conditions-and-diseases/hiv-and-other-stds/talk-with-your-teen-about-preventing-stds
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. STD & HIV Screening Recommendations. 2016; http://www.cdc.gov/std/prevention/screeningreccs.htm