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If you are not careful during sex, you risk becoming infected with sexually transmitted diseases.Image: pexels / Yan Krukau

Health & Psyche

Laura Wagener

The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently sounding the alarm: sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis are on the rise worldwide. The number of new syphilis infections each year has risen from around 7.1 million (2020) to eight million (2022).

“The rising incidence of syphilis is a cause for great concern,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. According to his organization’s report, more than one million people become infected with syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia or trichomoniasis every day. New HIV infections are also declining too slowly.

If you look around online, you get the feeling that our society – especially the youth – is more sexually informed than ever before. Access to information is easy these days.

But why are the number of cases so high?

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Sexually transmitted diseases: Shame plays a major role, according to experts

Daniel Nagel is co-founder of the association “F/A/Q” (formerly: Youth Against AIDS), which has been doing educational work on sexually transmitted diseases for many years.

He says shame still plays a big role. “Access to information is easy, but there is a lot of shame, taboo and also ignorance. This also arises from using the wrong sources.”

According to surveys by F/A/Q, more than 80 percent of young people get information about health content from social media. “On the other hand, more than 40 percent of respondents said they had felt embarrassed or ashamed when talking to medical professionals,” says Nagel.

When his organization provides information in schools, many students are usually only concerned about contraception. The fear of contracting diseases is secondary. In addition, sex is more accessible today. “Dating apps give you the opportunity to meet people very quickly and have sex.” This could also play a role in the increased number of cases.

Sex Education: Association educates series creators about sex topics

F/A/Q therefore tries to reach out to people and inform them where they are: on social media. The association wants to reach young people with “edutainment” – a mix of entertaining and educational content.

Together with the makers of “Sex Education” they launched a campaign in which series content on the topic of sex and health was taken up. They are present at Coachella and are also focusing on mental health. To do this, they are cooperating with the Elevator Boys, who talk openly about mental problems on Instagram and Tiktok.

It is important to make young people feel that they are not alone. That sexual and mental problems are totally normal, so that they can actively deal with their feelings, fears and worries without being ashamed of them,” says Nagel. Role models such as the Elevator Boys or Digital Safe Spaces, where like-minded people exchange ideas, are a great help here.

Syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia – what are they anyway?

People often lack the knowledge to recognize sexually transmitted diseases. If you know the symptoms, you can react in time and seek medical help.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease that is transmitted by bacteria. This can happen through small injuries to the skin or mucous membranes, for example during unprotected vaginal or anal sex.

The symptoms vary greatly, and sometimes the disease even goes undetected. If you notice a small ulcer on the penis, vagina, anal area or mouth, you should get it checked out. The lymph nodes may also be swollen. Symptoms such as fever and skin rashes follow later.

The disease is easily treatable with antibiotics. However, if left untreated, syphilis can have serious, life-threatening consequences.

Gonorrhea, also known as clap, is also transmitted through vaginal or anal sex, as well as oral sex. The infection is usually noticeable through itching or burning, as well as the formation of pus and discharge. Inflammation of the prostate is also possible, which is noticeable through pain in the perineum, in the bladder area, during bowel movements, and frequent urination.

In 50 percent of cases, women do not experience any symptoms. If it does happen, it is usually painful and frequent urination, as well as discharge and spotting. If left untreated, gonorrhea can lead to infertility.

Many people have probably also heard of chlamydia – although the infection usually occurs without any noticeable symptoms. Signs may include discharge from the urethra and vagina as well as itching, burning and pain when urinating. If left untreated, chlamydia can lead to inflammation of the abdomen, prostate, testicles and epididymis, as well as infertility.

How to protect yourself against sexually transmitted diseases

Prevention is the key, says Daniel Nagel. However, regular check-ups are often not possible in times of overloaded doctor’s offices, and unfounded tests usually have to be paid for out of pocket.

Men generally went to doctors less often. “When I go to the urologist as a young man, he says: ‘What do you want here? Come back in 30 years.'” Since many women now do not use hormonal contraceptive methods such as the pill and therefore need a prescription from doctors less often, their connection to doctors’ offices is also becoming less frequent.


Condoms protect against many infections.Image: pexels / cottonbro studio

To protect yourself, it is advisable to use condoms or female condoms for vaginal and anal intercourse. You should also use these for sex toys and clean the toys thoroughly after each use. Condoms and female condoms reduce the risk of transmission, but do not provide complete protection. People who have multiple sexual partners in particular should therefore get tested regularly.

Women under 25 have the opportunity to be tested for chlamydia once a year free of charge. There are vaccinations against human papilloma viruses (HPV), which play a major role in the development of cervical cancer. People who have an increased risk of becoming infected with HIV can take precautions by taking PrEP. Advice on such topics should be sought from a doctor’s office.

“As a young person, I can develop healthy routines to prevent breast or testicular cancer. I can touch my body in the shower and think: does that feel normal?” says Daniel Nagel. Those who listen to their body’s signals can detect many diseases early and seek medical help.

(with material from dpa)