STDs in Older Adults: What to Know About Your Risk

Sex in older age can help couples feel connected, boost confidence, and relieve stress.

The benefits aren’t just for long-time couples. Seniors may explore dating and sex after a breakup, divorce, or becoming widowed. Like younger people, seniors meet intimate partners through friends, social outings, and apps.

But sometimes, sex comes with risk, too.

How Common Are Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) in Older Adults?

Before we look at the stats, let’s clear up the terms. Sexually transmitted diseases don’t always cause symptoms. People can have an STD and not know it but still pass it on to someone else.

STDs are not as common in older adults as in young adults, data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows.

For example, the rate of chlamydia is 0.03% among people aged 20-24 (the most at-risk age group). The rate is much lower among adults 55 and over, at 0.0002%. That means 17 out of 100,000 seniors get a chlamydia diagnosis.

So, while the risk is low, it’s not nothing. And STDs are rising among older adults.

The chlamydia rate in adults 55+ rose from 7 per 100,000 to 17 per 100,000 in the last decade. The rate of gonorrhea increased by almost four times among adults 55+, as well.

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Why Are Some Seniors at Risk for STDs?

Many older adults think sexually transmitted disease aren’t spreading among people their age. As a result, they may not use protection, such as condoms, and avoid STD testing.

Some older adults may have new partners for the first time in decades. They may never have received information on protecting themselves from getting an STD.

Women beyond menopause don’t have to worry about pregnancy, so they may choose not to use condoms with new sexual partners. However, they can still acquire an STD from their partner.


What Are the Symptoms of STDs in Older Adults?

The symptoms of STDs in older adults are the same as in younger adults.

Symptoms of STDs depend on the type of sex and the type of STD. STDs acquired through oral sex can cause symptoms in the mouth, for example. People who get an STD through anal sex can have discharge or bleeding from the rectum or rectal soreness.

Symptoms of STDs in older adults include:

  • Discharge from the penis, vagina, or anus.
  • Warts or sores around the penis, vagina, or anal area.
  • Painful or swollen testicles.
  • Sores in or around the mouth.
  • Pain or burning while peeing.
  • Frequent peeing.
  • Itching in the genital or anal area.
  • Pain in the pelvic region.
  • Pain during sex.

Why Are STDs a Problem for Older Adults?

Many STDs can lead to infertility. This may not concern older adults. But, STDs can cause other problems, like severe pelvic and testicular pain.

Some STDs, like HIV, syphilis, or hepatitis B, can affect other organs in the body and cause life-threatening health issues. Testing and early treatment can prevent these serious problems.

Even if an STD isn’t causing symptoms in an older adult, it can be spread to sexual partners, who can then get symptoms.

When Should Older Adults Get Tested for STDs?

Older adults may feel too embarrassed to ask their doctor for a test for STDs. They shouldn’t. Sex is a normal, healthy part of life.

STD testing is an act of self-care and a responsibility to others. It helps keep us, those we care for, and the wider community safe. You don’t have to have symptoms to undergo STD testing.

Here are some guidelines for STD testing in older adults:

  • Women (or people with female reproductive systems) who have a new sex partner or more than one sexual partner should get tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea. They should consider getting tested for HIV and syphilis.
  • Men (or people with male reproductive systems) who have sex with men should get tested for chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, and hepatitis B at least once a year.

People with possible STD symptoms should tell their doctor about their symptoms and recent sexual activity. A provider can suggest what STD testing may be needed.

STD tests may take several forms, including:

  • Urine test, in which you pee into a cup.
  • Oral test, in which the inside of your mouth or throat is swabbed.
  • Blood test, in which your provider will draw blood from your arm or finger.
  • Physical exam, in which your provider looks for physical symptoms of an STD, including sores, rashes, irritation, or discharge.
  • Genital swab, in which your provider swabs your genital area.

Remember, it can take a week to several months for an STD to appear on a test after exposure. Check with your provider to find out if you should get retested.

How Can Older Adults Prevent the Spread of STDs?

In addition to testing, older adults can prevent the spread of STDs by practicing safer sex. Condoms dramatically reduce the risk of STDs but don’t prevent them 100%. For example, genital warts on testicles can spread to the vaginal or anal area, despite condom use.

If you’re worried about STDs, use a condom correctly every time you have sex. Put a condom on your penis or your partner’s penis for vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Be sure only to use water-based lube, not oil-based lube. This is because oil-based lube can break down the latex and cause a condom to rip, spreading infection.

Another option for oral sex is a dental dam. This sheet of latex or thin plastic provides a barrier between the mouth and vagina or anus. You can buy dental dams online or cut a condom into a square shape and use that.

Internal condoms worn inside the vagina or anus can also help provide a barrier to prevent the spread of STDs. But there isn’t enough research about how well they work for this purpose.

Sponges and spermicides help prevent pregnancy, but not STDs.

The Benefits of Open Communication

One positive of sex in older adulthood is that most older adults have learned how to express their needs best. Through open communication about protection, past sexual partners, and testing, you can stay healthy as you enjoy intimacy at any age.

American Sexual Health Association. Sex as we age. Link

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How to get yourself tested. Link

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Which STD tests should I get? Link

Dr. Matthew Lee Smith et al. Sexually Transmitted Infection Knowledge among Older Adults: Psychometrics and Test–Retest Reliability. Link

National Institutes of Health. Sexuality and intimacy in older adults. Link

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