Sex is an important and enjoyable part of many people’s lives, but it can come with some risks. It’s important to have accurate information, so you can take steps to protect yourself.
Recently, the rate of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the US has been rising. Although the rates differ for different specific diseases, the rates of STDs overall have been on the rise. For some specific diseases, there’s been a sharp increase. Experts believe that several different factors are involved in causing this increase.
Key Statistics and Trends
Overall Increase in STDs
In recent years, there has been an increase in the rates of STDs in the US. Some news media have reported on an “STD explosion in the US.” While the situation might not be quite so dire as this, it’s true that the rates of STDs have been steadily increasing in general.
According to CDC data, rates of gonorrhea increased by more than 27% from 2017 to 2021. Rates of syphilis rose by nearly 74% over the same period of time. Chlamydia did show a small drop, going down by about 4%. However, they rose by 4% between 2020 and 2021. In addition, experts believe that chlamydia rates actually rose in 2020 and 2021, even though the reported number of cases dropped. The reasons will be discussed later in this article.
Regional Outbreaks and Hotspots
In some particular areas, there has been an even more significant increase in the rates of STDs. One example is the syphilis outbreak in Houston. The Houston Health Department reported that, between 2019 and 2022, there was a 128% increase in syphilis cases in women. This means that the number of cases more than doubled. The number of cases of congenital syphilis (in which a baby is born with syphilis due to infection of a pregnant woman) was more than nine times higher in 2022 than in 2019.
In Alaska, there has also been a significant rise in the number of congenital syphilis cases. This was concerning enough that Dr. Anne Zink, the Chief Medical Officer of the Alaska Department of Health, sent a letter to all medical providers in Alaska informing them of the recent rise and emphasizing the importance of testing all pregnant women for syphilis. This letter from Anne Zink on STDs demonstrates how concerned public health officials are about the situation.
Underlying Causes and Concerns
Behavioral Changes and Pandemic Impact
The COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on many aspects of life beginning in 2020, so it’s reasonable to ask how it may have affected STD rates. People were social distancing, so it would make sense if STD rates during the pandemic declined.
Although rates of chlamydia did decline somewhat in 2020, syphilis and gonorrhea infection rates actually continued to rise. In 2021, the rates of all three of these diseases rose sharply compared with 2020.
This could be related to riskier sexual behavior during the pandemic. Studies found that condom use declined significantly during this period. This could be related to increased difficulty in getting condoms – many public health agencies were closed and therefore were not distributing free condoms as usual, and people were generally going to the store far less than before the pandemic.
It’s also important to note that the rates of STDs had been rising for several years before the pandemic. This makes it unlikely that the pandemic is responsible for causing the increased rates, although it could have been a contributing factor.
Testing and Diagnosis Challenges
In fact, although the reported rates of chlamydia did decrease in 2020, experts actually believe that the real chlamydia rates increased. This is because research has shown that there was far less testing for STDs during the pandemic, likely because people weren’t getting their usual screening medical care. The chlamydia testing decline was more than 50%.
In addition, some people tested at home instead of going to a doctor, meaning that some of those STD cases may not have been reported to public health authorities. This means that the true rates of STDs were probably far higher than was reported in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) STD data.
Conclusion and Recommendations
While sex is an important part of many people’s lives, it can come with some risks. It’s important to take measures to stay safe. Knowing that the rates of STDs are increasing sharply in the US may help motivate you to practice safer sex. There’s a clear link between risky sexual behaviors and STDs. If you’re sexually active and are not in a mutually monogamous sexual relationship, using a condom every single time you have sex – whether it’s vaginal, anal, or oral sex – will help to keep you safe.
It’s also important to ensure that you get tested regularly for STDs, because they’re becoming more and more common. You can go to your doctor or a public health clinic, or you can choose to order a home testing kit for a more convenient and private option.
Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance 2021. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/statistics/2021/default.htm. Accessed 26 Aug 2023.
Dacosta L, Pinkus RT, et al. Condom use during COVID-19: Findings from an Australian sample of heterosexual young adults. Sexologies 30(1): e43-e48. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1158136020301195
New data suggest STDs continued to increase during first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2022/p0412-STD-Increase.html. Accessed 26 Aug 2023.
Pinto CN, Niles JK, et al. Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Chlamydia and Gonorrhea Screening in the U.S. Am J Prev Med. 2021 Sep;61(3):386-393. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2021.03.009.
Letter to Alaska Providers Regarding Congenital Syphilis. State of Alaska Department of Health. https://health.alaska.gov/dph/Epi/hivstd/Documents/Congenital-Syphilis-Provider-Letter.pdf. Accessed 26 Aug 2023.
Houston Health Department reports syphilis outbreak, begins rapid community outreach response. Houston Health Department. https://www.houstonhealth.org/news/news-releases/houston-health-department-reports-syphilis-outbreak-begins-rapid-community-outreach-response. Accessed 26 Aug 2023.