Updates to CDC's STI Guidelines Relevant to Midlife Women Too

Tara Haelle

September 28, 2021

Sexually transmitted infection rates have not increased as dramatically in older women as they have in women in their teens and 20s, but rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea in women over age 35 have seen a steady incline over the past decade, and syphilis rates have climbed steeply, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That makes the STI treatment guidelines released by the CDC in July even timelier for practitioners of menopause medicine, according to Michael S. Policar, MD, MPH, a professor emeritus of ob.gyn. and reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco.

Policar discussed what clinicians need to know about STIs in midlife women at the hybrid annual meeting of the North American Menopause Society. Even the nomenclature change in the guidelines from "sexually transmitted diseases" to "sexually transmitted infections" is important "because they want to acknowledge the fact that a lot of the sexually transmitted infections that we're treating are asymptomatic, are colonizations, and are not yet diseases," Policar said. "We're trying to be much more expansive in thinking about finding these infections before they actually start causing morbidity in the form of a disease."

Sexual History

The primary guidelines update for taking sexual history is the recommendation to ask patients about their intentions regarding pregnancy. The "5 Ps" of sexual history are now Partners, Practices, Protection from STIs, Past history of STIs, and Pregnancy intention.

"There should be a sixth P that has to do with pleasure questions," Policar added. "We ask all the time for patients that we see in the context of perimenopausal and menopausal services, 'Are you satisfied with your sexual relationship with your partner?' Hopefully that will make it into the CDC guidelines as the sixth P at some point, but for now, that's aspirational."

In asking about partners, instead of asking patients whether they have sex with men, women, or both, clinicians should ask first if the patient is having sex of any kind – oral, vaginal, or anal – with anyone. From there, providers should ask how many sex partners the patient has had, the gender(s) of the partners, and whether they or their partners have other sex partners, using more gender-inclusive language.

When asking about practices, in addition to asking about the type of sexual contact patients have had, additional questions include whether the patient met their partners online or through apps, whether they or any of their partners use drugs, and whether the patient has exchanged sex for any needs, such as money, housing, or drugs. The additional questions can identify those at higher risk for STIs.

After reviewing the CDC's list of risk factors for gonorrhea and chlamydia screening, Policar shared the screening list from the California Department of Public Health, which he finds more helpful:

  • History of gonorrhea, chlamydia, or pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in the past 2 years.

  • More than 1 sexual partner in the past year.

  • New sexual partner within 90 days.

  • Reason to believe that a sex partner has had other partners in the past year.

  • Exchanging sex for drugs or money within the past year.

  • Other factors identified locally, including prevalence of infection in the community.

STI Screening Guidelines

For those with a positive gonorrhea/chlamydia (GC/CT) screen, a nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT) vaginal swab is the preferred specimen source, and self-collection is fine for women of any age, Policar said. In addition, cis-women who received anal intercourse in the preceding year should consider undergoing a rectal GC/CT NAAT, and those who performed oral sex should consider a pharyngeal GC/CT NAAT, based on shared clinical decision-making. A rectal swab requires an insertion of 3-4 cm and a 360-degree twirl of the wrist, not the swab, to ensure you get a sample from the entire circumference. Pharyngeal samples require swabbing both tonsillar pillars while taking care for those who may gag.

For contact testing – asymptomatic people who have had a high-risk sexual exposure – providers should test for gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV, and syphilis but not for herpes, high-risk HPV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or bacterial vaginosis. "Maybe we'll do a screen for trichomoniasis, and maybe we'll offer herpes type 2 serology or antibody screening," Policar said. Providers should also ask patients requesting contact testing if they have been vaccinated for hepatitis B. If not, "the conversation should be how can we get you vaccinated for hepatitis B," Policar said.

HIV screening only needs to occur once between the ages of 15 and 65 for low-risk people and then once annually (or more often if necessary) for those who have a sex partner with HIV, use injectable drugs, engage in commercial sex work, have a new sex partner with unknown HIV status, received care at an STD or TB clinic, or were in a correctional facility or homeless shelter.

Those at increased risk for syphilis include men who have sex with men, men under age 29, and anyone living with HIV or who has a history of incarceration or a history of commercial sex work. In addition, African Americans have the greatest risk for syphilis of racial/ethnic groups, followed by Hispanics. Most adults only require hepatitis C screening with anti-hep C antibody testing once in their lifetime. Periodic hepatitis C screening should occur for people who inject drugs. If the screening is positive, providers should conduct an RNA polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to determine whether a chronic infection is present.

Trichomoniasis screening should occur annually in women living with HIV or in correctional facilities. Others to consider screening include people with new or multiple sex partners, a history of STIs, inconsistent condom use, a history of sex work, and intravenous drug use. Policar also noted that several new assays, including NAAT, PCR, and a rapid test, are available for trichomoniasis.

STI Treatment Guidelines

For women with mucoprurulent cervicitis, the cause could be chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, trichomonas, mycoplasma, or even progesterone from pregnancy or contraception, Policar said. The new preferred treatment is 100 mg of doxycycline. The alternative, albeit less preferred, treatment is 1 g azithromycin.

The preferred treatment for chlamydia is now 100 mg oral doxycycline twice daily, or doxycycline 200 mg delayed-release once daily, for 7 days. Alternative regimens include 1 g oral azithromycin in a single dose or 500 mg oral levofloxacin once daily for 7 days. The switch to recommending doxycycline over azithromycin is based on recent evidence showing that doxycycline has a slightly higher efficacy for urogenital chlamydia and a substantially higher efficacy for rectal chlamydia. In addition, an increasing proportion of gonorrheal infections have shown resistance to azithromycin, particularly beginning in 2014.

Preferred treatment of new, uncomplicated gonorrhea infections of the cervix, urethra, rectum, and pharynx is one 500-mg dose of ceftriaxone for those weighing under 150 kg and 1 g for those weighing 150 kg or more. If ceftriaxone is unavailable, the new alternative recommended treatment for gonorrhea is 800 mg cefixime. For pharyngeal gonorrhea only, the CDC recommends a test-of-cure 7-14 days after treatment.

For gonorrheal infections, the CDC also recommends treatment with doxycycline if chlamydia has not been excluded, but the agency no longer recommends dual therapy with azithromycin unless it's used in place of doxycycline for those who are pregnant, have an allergy, or may not be compliant with a 7-day doxycycline regimen.

The preferred treatment for bacterial vaginosis has not changed. The new recommended regimen for trichomoniasis is 500 mg oral metronidazole for 7 days, with the alternative being a single 2-g dose of tinidazole. Male partners should receive 2 g oral metronidazole. The CDC also notes that patients taking metronidazole no longer need to abstain from alcohol during treatment.

"Another area where the guidelines changed is in their description of expedited partner therapy, which means that, when we find an index case who has gonorrhea or chlamydia, we always have a discussion with her about getting her partners treated," Policar said. "The CDC was quite clear that the responsibility for discussing partner treatment rests with us as the diagnosing provider" since city and county health departments don't have the time or resources for contact tracing these STIs.

The two main ways to treat partners are to have the patient bring their partner(s) to the appointment with them or to do patient-delivered partner therapy. Ideally, clinicians who dispense their own medications can give the patient enough drugs to give her partner(s) a complete dose as well. Otherwise, providers can prescribe extra doses in the index patients' name or write prescriptions in the partner's name.

"In every state of the union now, it is legal for you to to prescribe antibiotics for partners sight unseen, Policar said.

Margaret Sullivan, MD, an ob.gyn. from rural western North Carolina, noted during the Q&A that an obstacle to partner therapy at her practice has been cost, particularly since many of the men don't have insurance.

"I have not heard before of prescribing the extra doses for partners under the patient's name," Sullivan said. "I've thought about doing it, but [was worried about] it potentially being fraudulent if that patient has Medicaid and we're prescribing extra doses under her name, so how do you work around that?"

Policar acknowledged that barrier and recommended that patients use the website/app Goodrx.com to find discounts for out-of-pocket generic medications. He also noted the occasional obstacle of pharmacists balking at filling a double or triple dose.

"What we've been suggesting in that circumstance is to literally copy that part of the CDC guidelines, which explains expedited partner therapy or patient-delivered partner therapy and send that off to the pharmacist so they can see that it's a national recommendation of the CDC," Policar said.

Claudia Rodriguez, MD, an ob.gyn. who works at Sherman Hospital in Elgin, Ill., asked about the CDC recommendations for HPV vaccination in older women. Although the CDC permits women over age 26 to receive the HPV vaccine, the agency does not "make a solid recommendation to have this done, which oftentimes makes a big difference in whether or not health insurance will actually pay for vaccination in that circumstance," Policar said.

Patients are welcome to request the vaccine after shared decision-making, but "we should never present this as something which is routine," he said. For women in their 50s, for example, "there's virtually no data about any additional degree of protection that you would get" from HPV vaccination, Policar said in response to a similar question from Tara Allmen, MD, an ob.gyn. in New York City. "If you ask me for my personal clinical opinion about it, I would say it's not going to be worth it," he said.

Policar had no disclosures. Disclosures were unavailable for attendees who spoke.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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