STIs in the Aging Population: “What? I thought only my teenager could get that!”

In most current clinical practices, the goal is to educate young men and women about sexually transmitted infections. However, studies increasingly show that it is not only teens and young adults that need to watch the notches on their lipstick cases. In fact, an estimated 50% of STIs occur in the “lower risk” population of men and women over 25 years of age. A recent 2010 national survey reported 1 in 6 Americans has genital herpes and 1 in 3 women over the age of thirty is infected.

According to data from the UK Health Protection Agency, women ages 45 years and older are being diagnosed with increased rates of various STIs. Between the years 2002-2006, incidence rates of chlamydia increased by 25%, gonorrhea by 22%, syphilis by 100%, herpes by 8% and genital warts by 9%. In addition, 10% of all HIV infections (There are approx. 50,000 new cases of HIV per year in the US) were diagnosed in adults 50 years of age and older. Of the approximately 50,000 new cases of HIV infection per year in the US, notably 25% of newly diagnosed patients reported no high risk behaviors.

In a recent large US study of 7,593 women, Gaydos and colleagues reported that trichomoniasis was harbored in many women in their 40s and 50s with the highest rate of 13% in women over 45 years old. Prevalence rates in women ages 18-39 was approximately 8%, and in women ages 45-49 was a surprisingly high rate of 13.4 percent.

Why are older patients transmitting and acquiring sexual infections? One possible factor is related to clinicians. In a recent study, 68% of women older than 65 were never questioned by their primary care clinician about their sexuality. Only 10% of women reported the clinician had brought up the subject, and 22% raised the subject only because of concerns related to the history obtained from the patient.

Is this because of clinician embarrassment? Often, a patient is older than the clinician, or of the opposite sex. Though it should not be a factor during a medical visit, age and comfort with the patient are potential impeding factors when discussing sexual information. The same holds true for clinicians recently graduated from college. They are examining patients that are their parents and grandparents ages, and these young clinicians may not acknowledge/or accept the normal sexuality of this patient population and generation.

There are other contributing factors explaining why sexually transmitted infections are on the rise in the older population. Condom use is at an all-time low in women over 45 years of age. Often by this age or shortly after, menopause has begun and many women, in response no longer worrying about pregnancy risk, often no longer feel they need to use condoms. In fact, only 11% of older women reported regular condom use, with 41% never using condoms, and 38% using them only half of the time.

Perhaps the most debilitating STI is HIV. In women, it can exacerbate the already stressful menopausal transition worsening menopausal symptoms. HIV may also contribute to an earlier onset of menopause. To make matters worse, women with HIV tend to have a lower bone mineral density, and more significant abnormal cardiovascular markers than HIV negative menopausal women.

Current Pap smear guidelines now recommend cervical cancer screening with Pap smears begin at age 21 (not 3 years after sexual debut), then every two years until age 30, then every 2 to 3 years until ages 65 to 70 years of age. If a woman has had three consecutive abnormal pap smears in the past 10 years she may stop screening between the ages of 65 and 70. Women who are HPV positive or have a history of abnormal Pap and /or hpv results should continue regular Pap smear/HPV screening, and need to also be reminded of risks for cervical, vulvar, oral and perianal carcinomas. Of note, all women and men should be educated about the HPV related risks for various associated HPV related cancers and conditions (such as genital warts caused by low risk subtypes of HPV).

Although the subject of sex with older patients still tends to be taboo, a sort of civilian version of “don’t ask, don’t tell”, it is critically important to inform all patients of HPV related health problems they may be at risk of either acquiring or transmitting and how to prevent such infections through consistent use of condoms and/or abstinence. As health care providers and clinicians, we must discuss sexual activity with our patients regardless of their age and/or our/their reluctance. Our lives depend on all clinicians adopting a more open and honest approach to sexuality, STI prevention, screening, testing and treatment especially with their “older” patients.

Vaginal pH testing is a quick and easy diagnostic screening tool for vaginitis and vaginitis related STI screening. Traditionally, vaginal pH testing involves the use of Nitrazine pH paper (on a roll) requiring multiple steps to conduct the test including use of a color and numerical scale to determine if the test is normal or abnormal. Considered too cumbersome and time consuming for many busy clinicians, vaginal pH testing is not widely utilized.

New, improved vaginal pH tests are now available affording a simple and quick way to screen patients during both routine and problem gynecologic visits.

The new VS-SENSE diagnostic vaginal swab test facilitates diagnosis of bacterial vaginosis (BV), trichomoniasis and atrophic vaginitis by identifying changes in the acidity parameters of the vaginal secretions. The VS-SENSE swab is coated with an innovative proprietary polymer which contains a colorimetric pH indicator, Nitrazine yellow. When the polymer in the swab, which is yellow before use, contacts vaginal fluid and reaches a specific threshold, the user observes a blue or green color change on the swab. When the tip of the swab stains blue or green the VS-SENSE test is positive indicating an elevated vaginal pH level (>4.7 +.3/-.2) which is associated with both bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis or atrophic vaginitis. If after 10 seconds the swab tip does not change color, but remains yellow, the VS-SENSE test is negative, indicating that vaginal acidity is normal and the risk of having an infection associated with elevated vaginal pH level in unlikely.

The VS-SENSE technology is based on combining the measurement of the vaginal pH with buffer capacity (the concentration of protein within the discharge) which together raises the overall accuracy of the test to over 90%.

This new vaginal pH test, VS-SENSE, provides a quick, easy, accurate approach for screening and diagnosis of vaginitis and is especially well suited for busy primary care and women’s health practices.

For more information on testing for vaginal infections and STIs, and to download a PDF copy of the New 2010 CDC STI Treatment Guidelines, visit, or go to,


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Filed under Diagnostic Testing, General Women's Health, Human Papillomavirus, Nurse Practitioner Professional Issues, Sexually Transmitted Infections, Uncategorized, Vaginal Health, Vulvovaginitis

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