Statistics show that sexually transmitted infections (STIs), also called sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), are on the rise among teens locally and across the country. A recent report from Dallas County Health and Human Services found that rates of STIs have increased by more than 20%. Out of the 19,000 county-wide cases of chlamydia, 60% were among teens 15 to 24 years old.
May Lau, M.D., M.P.H., adolescent medicine physician at Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern, urges parents to have open, honest, and ongoing conversations with their teens.
"Parents may feel uncomfortable at the thought of talking to their child about sexually transmitted infections or reproductive health topics, but these conversations – that should really begin in early childhood – can help prepare teens to deal with certain situations safely and responsibly."
Dr. Lau answers parents' most commonly asked questions about teens and STIs and shares advice on how you can start the conversation with your child.
What are common STIs in teens?
Gonorrhea and chlamydia are the most common reported STIs in teens. Other common STIs include human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes simplex virus.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that teens between 15 and 24 years old acquire half of all new STIs. Research also suggests that one in four sexually active adolescent females has an STI.
Dr. Lau adds that many STIs go undiagnosed and untreated. "Many of the teens we see in the young adolescent clinic are surprised to learn they have an STI because not all infections present with symptoms," she explains. "It's all the more reason for constant conversations about sexual and reproductive health, responsible decision-making, and among sexually active teens, regular testing."
What should I tell my teen about STIs?
It can be hard for teens to sort fact from fiction when it comes to sexual education and reproductive health. Dr. Lau urges parents to answer questions openly and honestly, and be prepared to address a wide-range of issues, including:
- How STIs are transmitted, which includes sexual intercourse, close sexual contact or bodily fluids
- Symptoms of STIs, including that you can't tell if someone has an STI just by looking at them
- The importance of treating STIs and possible side effects if left untreated
- How condoms can reduce (but not completely prevent) STIs
- The importance of regular STI testing for sexually active young adults
How can I talk to my teen about STIs?
Conversations about reproductive and sexual health should begin long before puberty hits. Experts recommend starting with honest and stigma-free conversations about their bodies – including teaching young children anatomically correct names for body parts.
"Many people think sexual health and reproductive health is a taboo topic," says Dr. Lau. "Really, it's not just about having sex, it's about making healthy decisions. Framing it in a positive light helps take the embarrassment – for teens and their parents – out of the conversation."
Dr. Lau's tips for talking about sex, STIs and healthy relationships include:
- Read a book together and talk about what you've learned
- Tackle sticky subjects in the car when you're not forced to look at each other
- Use TV shows or current events to discuss the decisions a character or person made and how your child would have responded
- Take advantage of certain times in your child's life when the conversation comes up naturally, such as when they receive the HPV vaccine
- Talk about topics beyond sex and STIs. Discuss consent, respect, honesty and trust to show teens how to build and maintain healthy relationships.
The Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) program includes comprehensive patient care for male and female patients from 11 to 21 years old. As adolescent specialists, we do not replace your primary care provider (PCP). We serve as an additional resource to promote adolescent health. Board-certified, fellowship trained adolescent medicine providers are available to educate, counsel, manage and support adolescents on many issues, including mental health, substance use, sexual and reproductive health, diagnosing and treating STIs, acne, menstrual issues and more.
Stay current on the health insights that make a difference to your children. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter and have more tips sent directly to your inbox.