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Trichomoniasis in Teens

Trichomoniasis, known as trich, is a common sexually transmitted disease (STD). It's caused by the parasite Trichomonas vaginalis. It can cause vaginal redness and swelling (inflammation) in women. In men it can cause painful urination. By some estimates, millions of people have trich. But only about 1/3 of them have any symptoms. Experts estimate that at least 25% of new infections occurs in teen girls.

This STD is not a life-threatening illness, and it is easy to cure. But it's important to get it treated right away. That’s because trich can make it easier for a teenage girl or woman to contract HIV during sex. In pregnant women, the infection is linked to preterm birth and babies that are smaller than normal babies. Both conditions are linked to health problems in newborns.

Trich is passed from one person to another through unprotected sexual contact. Men and women can both get this infection. Women are most likely to contract an infection in their vagina or vulva. Men are usually infected in their urethra. This is the tube inside the penis that carries semen as well as urine.

What are the symptoms of trich infection?

Most people who have a trich infection don't have symptoms. If symptoms occur, they may begin anywhere from a few days to months after infection.

Symptoms in women:

  • Itching or irritation in the vagina 

  • A bad-smelling discharge that is frothy and yellow or greenish

  • Burning feeling in the vagina

Symptoms in men:

  • Irritation and itching in the penis

  • A discharge of pus from the penis 

Symptoms in both:

  • Pain or discomfort with urination and during sexual intercourse

Without treatment, the infection can linger for years.

When to seek medical care

Call the healthcare provider if your child or teen is having the above symptoms. If your child is an older teen girl, her healthcare provider may refer her to a gynecologist for testing and treatment.

How is trich diagnosed?

At the doctor's office, the diagnosis may be made by:

  • Physical exam, exam of genitals, and, in females, an internal pelvic exam to look for small red sores in the vagina.

  • Discussion of symptoms.

  • Taking samples to analyze for the presence of infection. Swabs of the urethra or vagina may be needed to get these samples. Teenagers often find these exams uncomfortable. In some situations, teenage women may be allowed to help obtain the samples themselves.

  • Discussion of sexual activity. Although sexually transmitted infections are common among teens that are sexually active by choice, they also occur among children and teens that have been abused. Your teen's doctor or nurse may ask questions about your child's sexual history. If you suspect abuse, ask for help.

How is trich treated?

Treatment of trich includes:

  • Prescription medicine. Your teen's healthcare provider may recommend an antibiotic (metronidazole) to treat the infection. Your teen should be sure to take all the medicine as prescribed, even if he or she feels better. Your teen should absolutely not drink any alcohol while on metronidazole because he or she can become very sick. A teen girl should tell her healthcare provider if she is pregnant or think she might be pregnant. Certain medicines should be avoided during the first trimester of pregnancy.

  • Avoiding reinfection. About 20% of people get the infection again after being treated. Your teen's partner should be treated at the same time. Both of them should avoid sexual intercourse until the treatment is finished and the symptoms have gone away. 

  • Preventing future infections. Learning about not having sex (abstinence) or having safe, protected sex is also important.

Can trich be prevented?

The safe sex habits that your child needs to prevent trich are the same ones that can prevent any STD. Have a discussion with your teen about prevention. Think about this as a chance to reinforce your values about sexual activity and protection. Important prevention tips are:

  • Abstinence. The best way to avoid trich and other STDs is to not have sex.

  • Talk about sexual histories. Teach your child that if he or she is planning to have sex with someone, he or she should find out about his or her partner's sexual history. Agreeing to get tested for STDs together, before having sex, would be ideal.

  • Protected sex. Talk with your teen about how to have safe and protected sex. He or she should always use a new, latex condom for sexual intercourse to prevent infection. Condoms may not protect against all trich infections, however. Also remind teens that IUDs, shots, a diaphragm, spermicides, douching, and oral birth control methods like the pill do not prevent infection.

  • Say no to unwanted sex. Remind your teen that he or she does not have to have sex or accept any unwanted sexual contact from anyone. It is critically important to report rape or abuse if it happens.

  • Report any unusual symptoms. If your teen again has unusual itching or burning in the genitals, it's important to see his or her healthcare provider right away. This could be a sign of reinfection. Make sure your child has regular healthcare provider appointments and pelvic exams. Even if your teen seems completely healthy, regular exams are a good way to find any problems.