UAB Medicine News
How to Talk to Your Teen about Sexually Transmitted Infections
Many parents do a great job of talking to their teenager about tough topics, such as sex. But even the most dedicated parents with the best intentions can find it hard to talk about sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Jodie Dionne-Odom, MD, an assistant professor of medicine in the UAB Division of Infectious Diseases and STI researcher, says parents often want to discuss this issue with their teenager but aren’t sure how to start the conversation.
Teenagers and young adults have the highest rates of STIs, so it’s crucial for families to have these discussions as early as possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported nearly two million STIs in 2017, and approximately half of all new STIs occurred in individuals between the age of 15 and 24.
To get the conversation started, it may be helpful for parents to think back to what it felt like to be a teenager. “The world can feel like a confusing place to teenagers, and high school can be a particularly challenging time for some,” Dr. Dionne-Odom says. “Teens may have questions about sex or STIs related to images they have seen online, things they’ve heard from friends at school, or even from personal experiences.”
Keeping the lines of communication open from the earliest conversations about feelings and relationships is a great way to be an ongoing resource for your teen. “There is a lot of misinformation out there, and a trusted parent is often in the best position to listen to a teen’s questions and concerns,” Dr. Dionne-Odom says. “Parents do not need to have all the answers to be an important resource for their kids.”
STI Testing and the Law
One essential topic to bring up in these conversations is STI testing. Chlamydia, which is caused by a type of bacteria, is the most commonly reported STI in the United States and an important STI to get tested for. Dr. Dionne-Odom says chlamydia affects teenage girls more often than teenage boys, likely due to differences in biology and anatomy.
“Because of these high rates, routine annual testing for chlamydia is recommended for all sexually active girls and women under the age of 25,” she says. “Infection is usually asymptomatic, and testing can be performed on a urine sample.”
Testing for HIV and other STIs is recommended for sexually active teenagers and young adults. In the state of Alabama, teenagers can request or accept STI testing without the permission of their parents. The teenager’s physician may choose to inform the parents about the STI testing, but this is not legally required.
“This law is in place to help increase screening rates, so that teens with an infection can be treated and will not transmit the infection to others,” Dr. Dionne-Odom explains. “Many teenagers are on their parents’ medical insurance plan, and these confidentiality laws do not prohibit parents from seeing a charge for STI testing on the bill or insurance coverage documents.”
Parents should strive for openness, honesty, and accountability with regard to STI-related concerns. They should personally educate themselves about STIs and teenage sexual behaviors to prepare for the tough conversations ahead. According to CDC surveys, 40% of high school students say they’ve had sex in the past, and 30% say they’ve had sex in the past three months.
For parental education, a good place to start is the CDC website. It offers some excellent information about STIs that is specific to teenagers and young adults. For example, this CDC infographic highlights the types of STIs most common among young people, unique factors that place youth at risk, and the consequences of living with undiagnosed STIs. The CDC also offers helpful articles, webinars, podcasts, videos, reports, fact sheets, and brochures that cover topics such as STI prevention, condom do’s and don’ts, and what to do if you’ve recently been diagnosed with a STI.
Pediatricians are another excellent source of information about STIs in teens. Alongside parents and caregivers, pediatricians can play a key role in helping teenagers understand the risks of sexual activity and make positive choices about STI prevention and treatment. These are important lessons that will help them during the teenage years and into adulthood.
“Since it is a partnership, parents should strongly consider allowing the pediatrician to ask questions of their teenager without a parent in the room during routine medical visits,” Dr. Dionne-Odom suggests. “Studies show that some teens may not feel comfortable talking with their parents about sex, but they will open up to a trusted pediatrician who can answer any questions or concerns they might have.”
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