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Women Are Never Too Old for Sex -- or for Sexually Transmitted Disease

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May 8, 2001 -- Herpes, the saying goes, is forever. And according to one expert, it is also for everyone, no matter how old.

Jerome M. Eder, MD, an ob-gyn who specializes in treating genital herpes and other sexually transmitted diseases, presented a study at the recent American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Annual Clinical Meeting describing genital herpes infections in women aged 50 and older.

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease characterized by frequent outbreaks of blister-like lesions. Younger people, and those who do not practice safe sex, are often at higher risk for the disease, but anyone who is sexually active can get it.

If you have questions about herpes, go to WebMD's Genital Herpes chat board moderated by Terri Warren, RN, ANP.

Eder says that even ob-gyns who routinely counsel younger women about the risks of sexually transmitted diseases overlook such counseling when the patient is aged 50 or older. And older women, says Eder, "often think that with age comes safety. It doesn't work that way."

But even if older women think they have reached a safe-sex zone, a look in the mirror might help them remember from whence they came. After all, today's 50-something woman may be the flower child of the 1960s. Eder points out that this woman is unlikely to leave sex behind at menopause.

To learn how genital herpes affects older women, Eder studied 100 women aged 50-83 with the disease.

Eder tells WebMD that about 40% of the women in his study say they "aren't bothered by their herpes status and they almost never think about the infection." He says that about the same percentage of women have very infrequent herpes outbreaks. "Infrequent means once a year or less," says Eder.

Still, there are women stressed by their disease. "Actually some women who have had only one outbreak of herpes since they were initially diagnosed still think about herpes all the time," says Eder. "These women feel they are caught in the vise of herpes."

Eder says ob-gyns may be reluctant to discuss sexually transmitted diseases with older women. "If I had 1,000 ob-gyns in a room and I said I wanted to see a show of hands of how many discuss sexually transmitted diseases with postmenopausal women, I would see one or two hands," he says.

Sandra A. Carson, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, tells WebMD that she, too, thinks many gynecologists are reluctant to "talk about sex with these women."

But Carson says that many of these women are actually at high risk for sexually transmitted diseases. "Very often these are women who are recently divorced or widowed," she says. "They are now once again entering the dating world and may once again have several partners."

Eder's study backs up this observation. Among the women in his study, several were infected in the 1990s and one woman was infected in 2000, yet the women are all over age 50. He says that one woman in her 80s was infected as "the result of oral sex."

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