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STI rates are rising in people over 60 years old in Ontario, according to a health official from the province who is warning older adults.
Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, acting medical officer of health in Chatham-Kent, told the area's board of health that "gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis are three of the most common sexually transmitted diseases across the province," Windsor News Today reported.
In fact, cases of STI rates have increased across the board:
Gonorrhea: up from 60 in 2013 to around 300 in 2022
Syphilis: from 40 in 2013 to about 220 in 2022
Chlamydia: from 150 in 2013 to about 400 in 2022
However, what Nesathurai emphasized to local media is "one thing that's not always acknowledged is that sexually transmitted infections also occur in people in their sixth and seventh decades of life."
These older adults are "getting divorced and widowed and they're initiating new sexual relationships," he explained to Windsor News Today, adding many living in long-term care facilities are also sexually active. The doctor told Chatham Daily News that preventing pregnancy at that age is also less of an issue, so people are less likely to use contraception.
Nesathurai added testing is important for all ages. But what actually goes into an STI test, and should older people actually be taking the time to get them? Read on to learn more.
What are STI tests?
Tests for sexually transmitted infections (STIs, formerly called sexually transmitted diseases or STDs) differ depending on your symptoms and what you're being tested for, along with what your health care provider suggests. However, they can reveal a number of possible infections you may be carrying.
Urine samples can detect chlamydia, gonorrhea or trichomoniasis. Blood samples can spot HIV, syphilis, hepatitis B or hepatitis C. If you're getting swabbed, typically around the throat, penis, vagina or anus, you might test positive for chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, syphilis or trichomoniasis.
In addition to being available by your health care provider, you can access STI tests at sexual health clinics, local public health units or a walk-in clinic. Canadians can find their closest service through Action Canada's website.
I remember in my 20s thinking, 'I wonder if people in their 50s still have sex? I can tell you: Damn right they do.Sue McGarvie
Why should you bother getting STI tests?
Out of the many existing STIs, Ottawa-based clinical sex and relationship therapist Sue McGarvie explains there are a few that remain non-curable. Two of them, HIV and herpes, do not have any immunizations. But people can get immunized against HPV and Hepatitis.
While some people may experience symptoms like itching, discharge, flu-like symptoms or a burning sensation while urinating, untreated STIs can lead to more serious consequences. That includes permanent infertility, increased risk of contracting HIV or a higher chance of developing cancer. Moreover, STIs sometimes don't present any symptoms, meaning you might be spreading infections without even knowing it.
How can you stay protected against STIs?
Vaccines might help protect you from certain STIs, but they're not the only option when it comes to safe sex.
"You need to be thinking of how you're going to be doing safety," McGarvie tells Yahoo Canada. "Is it going to be an exclusive relationship where you're both getting tested and you're being authentic and making sure you're not exploring outside of that? Or are you using some kind of barrier method?"
The most well-known barrier are condoms, including both external and internal versions. External condoms are those that roll onto penises or sex toys. Internal condoms, on the other hand, are inserted into the vagina or anus, and include a flexible ring inside its sheath to help insertion.
McGarvie says using external condoms can be difficult for some older men, because it sometimes can be "harder to maintain an erection with a condom on." In many cases, internal condoms are more common amongst older women.
Dental dams are also options that can help cover the skin around your mouth, genitals or anus to prevent STI transmission.
I think people dismiss how much and how often people over 50, 60, even 70, are having sex. I'm hoping to have it until they take me away in a box.Sue McGarvie
Who should be getting STI tests? Should older people get STI tests?
The Public Health Agency of Canada indicates anyone who is sexually active should be tested for STIs. That includes people who have had unprotected sex, anyone with STI symptoms or people who have had sex with someone who has an STI. But McGarvie says more people may fall under those categories than you might think.
"If you're having sex, it doesn't matter how old you are," she shares.
"You may not see it as the 60-year-old OnlyFans people, but the truth is, is that sexuality evolves but it sure doesn't go."
STIs are currently on a steady rise across Canada — and that doesn't exclude older adults. A Statistics Canada report shows between 2010 and 2019, there was about a 90 per cent increase among people older than 60 per 100,000 population for chlamydia. For gonorrhea, that was a 168 per cent rise, and it was a 218 per cent jump for syphilis.
STI tests might seem ridiculous for older adults who are not concerned about infertility — or simply catching an infection at a later stage in life. But McGarvie urges that it's not something older adults should skip out on.
"It is no laughing matter to have an antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea," she says. "And why would you at this stage of your life? You have your car insurance, you take your multivitamin — don't be an idiot."