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Record-high STD rates in Hawaii linked to online dating — why apps may be making sex less safe

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are on the rise in the U.S., but one state in particular is blaming online dating for the uptick.

Hawaii is experiencing record-high STD rates — and officials are pointing a finger at the prevalence of online dating, which makes it easier for people to find sexual (as well romantic) partners, along with a drop in the use of protection.

“Online dating is part of what maybe some people refer to as the ‘hookup culture’ — having casual sex outside of committed relationships,” Dean Winslow, MD, an infectious diseases physician at Stanford Health Care, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “I think that online dating is more connected to really facilitating the opportunities to have sexual encounters.”

Gerald Hasty, PhD, program coordinator for Hawaii’s Department of Health Harm Reduction Services Branch, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the trend may be increasing exposure. “As people rely on digital means of making connections, it can lead to circumstances where they might be more exposed to infection without them knowing it,” he said. “More partners, more chances to get infections.”

Vox reported in 2017 that online dating sites have “disrupted the way people have sex” — but these sites don’t necessarily want to be involved in STD prevention. “They are hesitant to support sexual health,” Jeffrey Klausner, MD, a professor of medicine and STD researcher at UCLA, told the publication. “They realize that their sites could be stigmatized for being associated with STDs. They do as little as possible.”

Lower rates of safe sex are also contributing to the record-high STD rates. “[A contraceptive] sort of interrupts the spontaneity of having sex and it’s inconvenient and a little bit messy.” But when used consistently (and correctly) … [it] provides a physical barrier that reduces the risk of getting several sexually transmitted infections, according to the CDC.

Hawaii is not alone in seeing a rise in STD rates, however. A new report from the CDC shows that three STDs in particular — chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis — have increased across the U.S. Chlamydia is up 3 percent to more than 1.7 million cases, while gonorrhea rose by 5 percent to more than 580,000 cases (the highest number reported since 1991, according to the CDC). Syphilis is up by 14 percent to more than 35,000 cases — also the highest number reported since 1991. (The CDC also reports a “growing threat” of newborn deaths caused by syphilis passed from mother to baby during pregnancy.)

“All three are at [or near] their highest rates in about 30 years,” Hasty told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “The fact that they’re all increasing is not desirable, but it’s also not unexpected.”

Since some STDs have mild to no symptoms, it’s possible to be infected and not know it. “You could still transmit the disease even if you don’t have symptoms,” notes Winslow. Added Hasty: “That sets the stage for the infections to be spread. Lack of regular screenings or routine screenings contribute to increasing rates.”

Winslow tells Yahoo Lifestyle that people also tend to underestimate how easy it is to get an STD. “I think there’s a false perception that these diseases are not as easily transmitted as they are and that it’s not a big deal to treat them once you get them,” he says.

While chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis can all be treated with antibiotics, if left untreated, they can lead to several different health issues. Chlamydia, which is the most commonly reported STD in the U.S., can cause “serious, permanent damage to a woman’s reproductive system,” according to the CDC, affecting a woman’s ability to become pregnant. As the CDC points out: “Even when chlamydia causes no symptoms, it can damage your reproductive system.”

Gonorrhea — a common infection, especially in people 15 to 24 years old — can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, which can increase the risk of ectopic pregnancy and infertility, according to the CDC. Syphilis — marked by firm, round, painless sores — can spread to the brain or nervous system if left untreated, according to the CDC, causing headaches, paralysis, dementia, and vision problems, including blindness.

But there are ways you can prevent STDs. “The best way to protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections is by having sex mainly in the context of a committed relationship,” says Winslow, after both partners have been tested by their health care providers for STDs. If you and your sexual partner haven’t been tested for STDs, Winslow recommends using a barrier contraception method, which he says are “very effective in preventing sexually transmitted diseases.”

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