“You have chlamydia.”
No woman ever wants to hear those words, but that’s what Tracy Hill’s* doctor told her just over a year ago.
Hill, who was 46 at the time, had visited her GP for blood work and a Pap smear because she had been experiencing low energy and heavy periods. Two days later, the phone rang and her doctor broke the news that she had a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Tracy laughed. “No, no, this is Tracy Hill,” she said. “You called the wrong Tracy.”
But it wasn’t a mistake.
Hill soon discovered that her boyfriend of three-and-a-half years had contracted chlamydia when he slept with another woman while vacationing in Mexico. He then passed the STI on to Tracy.
“I was in shock,” she says. “It was the furthest thing from my mind. It wasn’t like we were newly dating; our families were enmeshed together.”
Hill and her boyfriend didn’t use condoms anymore, however she thought she was safe because she was in a committed, long-term relationship. These days, STIs aren’t just the territory of teens and young adults. In fact, more 40-and 50-something women are re-entering the dating world after divorce, separation or widowhood than ever before and, as a result, STIs are on the rise in Canadians over 40.
Middle-aged Canadians and STIs
Reported rates of chlamydia alone increased by 153 per cent in people aged 40 to 59 between 2003 and 2012. Why? Single mid-life Canadians are having vibrant sex lives, but many of them aren’t using protection.
A recent study conducted by Trojan and the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN) showed that less than half of single men and women with three or more sexual partners in the past year had actually used a condom in their last sexual encounter.
“We have people coming back to the dating marketplace who haven’t had to negotiate this stuff for 20 years or more,” says Dr. Robin Milhausen, a sexuality and relationship expert at the University of Guelph who helped lead the mid-life sex study. “They are out of practice and feel really self-conscious talking about condom use.”
STIs aren’t the only thing that sexually active women have to worry about; unexpected pregnancies can still occur in mid-life.
In 2013, the number of abortions for women over 35 reported in Canada exceeded those performed on teens, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. Though it’s still unclear why, one reason may be that women stop using contraception because it’s been widely disseminated that fertility decreases significantly after 35.
However, decreased fertility and infertility aren’t the same thing.
It may also be the case that women who rely on tracking their cycles as a method of birth control are thrown for a loop when the regularity of their periods shifts when they enter their 40s. Whether you have been in the same relationship for decades or are starting something new, if you haven’t hit menopause, you’ll need to use contraception (like the pill, a hormonal patch, an IUD or a condom) if you don’t want to get pregnant.
No glove, no love
For STI prevention, condom use is still the most effective method, but condoms are not 100 percent STI-proof (because some STIs, such as herpes and HPV, can be spread through sores or skin not covered by a condom).
Many common infections, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV and hepatitis B and C, can be transmitted through secretions like semen, vaginal fluids and blood and can largely be prevented by slipping on a condom before sexual contact begins and removing it only after sexual contact is complete. And don’t forget that swapping fluids while sharing sex toys or practising oral or anal sex can also transmit infections.
When it comes to talking to your partner about condom use, “There’s no magic way to do it,” says Dr. Milhausen. “I think our partners are likely to be grateful if we raise thequestion and we come across as competent and confident. Just say ‘Can we talk about condoms?’ Or ‘Let’s not go further until we get a condom.’”
If your partner reacts badly or tries to convince you that a condom isn’t necessary, he is putting his pleasure and gratification above your sexual health.
How to know if you have an STI
Outside the bedroom, pay attention to your body and visit a doctor if you notice symptoms such as painful urination, vaginal discharge, pelvic pain, genital warts or sores. If caught early, many STIs can be treated with a course of antibiotics, but if left untreated, they can have long-term side effects.
Chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause an infection in the Fallopian tubes, that could lead to infertility. HPV, a virus for which a vaccination is available that has been tested on women up to age 45, can cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, anus or mouth. Hepatitis B, another STI with a vaccine that’s usually administered in childhood, can cause liver cancer. And, although very, very rare, syphilis can eventually lead to blindness, paralysis or death.
In many cases, though, men and women don’t experience any symptoms at all, even though they’re contagious. “You might come in contact with an STI and not get it,” says Toronto gynecologist Dr. Nancy Durand. “Or you could carry it with no manifestation.”
That’s why frequent Pap tests and STI testing should become part of your self-care routine. All of this information may seem daunting, especially if you’re trying to re-enter the dating scene, but the possible reward – a healthy and satisfying sex life – is totally worth it.