'Never too old for a sexual infection'

Image caption Over-40s are not always well-informed about STIs

Think of someone with a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and the chances are you will visualise someone young, the age group that is traditionally targetted in awareness campaigns.

But in this week's Scrubbing Up, Linda Bailey from the Royal College of Nursing warns STI's are a growing problem for the over 40s, and that the problem is being ignored.

Barely a month goes by without new warnings that the rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is rising among the nation's youth.

Chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhoea, herpes, and genital warts to name just a few are affecting ever-growing numbers with each year that passes.

The effects of these infections can range from mild embarrassment through to life-long infertility or in the most serious of cases, premature death.

We all know that young people have sex, and unfortunately protection is not always used.

Because of this, there is now a plethora of social marketing and advertising campaigns warning teenagers and young adults of the dangers of unprotected sex.

'Do we not count?'

But what about the 'older' adults?

Do we not count because people assume we no longer have sex?

Or is it that being over the age of 40 somehow provides instant immunity to sexually transmitted infections?

The truth is times have changed and so has the rate of STIs among older adults.

Between 1999 and 2008 the Health Protection Agency reported a 53% increase in gonorrhoea among men aged 45-64 and a 93% increase among women.

At the same time, the rate of herpes increased by 130% among this age group. Worryingly, there were also 17,000 new HIV diagnoses.

While the incidence of STIs among older adults may be small compared with teenagers and young adults, it is there and it is growing.

Sexual freedom

There are an increasing number of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who are newly single having recently come to the end of a long-term relationship.

Many of these people would have also been in secure, stable relationships during the 1980s and impassive to the powerful advertising campaigns that shocked their single friends into protecting themselves from the scourge of HIV and AIDS.

Many of these now 'older' adults will have had their first sexual experiences in the relatively safe years before we realised the dawn of Aids was just around the corner.

The pill was easily accessible and as teenagers and young people, this generation, felt free to experiment.

This group is now once again revelling in sexual freedom, but without the benefit of having ever been the target of public health campaigns to warn them of the dangers. The truth is that infections do not discriminate between 18 or 80 year olds - we all need to be careful.

The Department of Health website provides an array of sexual health guidance and leaflets for prisoners, drug users, young men, young women, gay and bi-sexual men, people from black and ethnic communities and sex workers.

These people all have needs and their needs are very important. However there is a huge gap in information aimed at people like myself who are single, straight, of a certain age and sexually active.

It appears that sex in the over-40s just doesn't happen, or if it does it isn't talked about.

There are many excellent campaigns out there to alert the nation's youth to the dangers of unprotected sex. But unfortunately cartoon characters and street slang just don't speak to people like me.

Times have changed and sex no longer belongs to the younger generation. We should be embracing the fact 40, 50, 60 and beyond is no longer "past-it" and celebrate the young and active lifestyles of the older community.

However, to keep the sexually liberated over-40s infection-free, which will also ultimately save the NHS money, we need a dedicated awareness campaign which sends out the right messages through the right channels to the right people.

Health advice for the over-40s: Your Comments

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites