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Archived Final Recommendation Statement

Sexually Transmitted Infections: Behavioral Counseling

Originally published on: December 30, 2013

This recommendation statement is currently archived and inactive. It should be used for historical purposes only. Click here for copyright and source information .

Disclaimer:Recommendations made by the USPSTF are independent of the U.S. government. They should not be construed as an official position of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Archived: Recommendation Summary

Summary of Recommendations

(What's This?)
Sexually Active Adolescents and Adults, Increased Risk

The USPSTF recommends high-intensity behavioral counseling to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) for all sexually active adolescents and adults at increased risk for STIs. 

Non-Sexually Active Adolescents and Adults, Not at Increased Risk

The USPSTF concludes that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of behavioral counseling to prevent STIs in non-sexually-active adolescents and in adults not at increased risk for STIs.

Go to the Clinical Considerations section for information on risk assessment and suggestions for practice regarding the I statement.


Select for a Clinical Summary of this recommendation.

Archived: Rationale


Despite advances in the screening, diagnosis, and treatment of STIs, they remain an important cause of morbidity and mortality in the United States.

Recognition of Behavior

Primary care clinicians and teams can identify adolescents and adults who are at increased risk. (Go to the Clinical Considerations section for information on risk assessment.)

Effectiveness of Counseling to Change Behavior

There is convincing evidence that high-intensity behavioral counseling interventions targeted to sexually active adolescents and adults at increased risk for STIs reduce the incidence of STIs. These results were found 6 and 12 months after counseling took place.

The USPSTF has identified the absence of studies and evidence on behavioral counseling interventions directed towards adults not at increased risk for STIs and non-sexually-active adolescents as a critical gap in the literature.

Harms of Counseling

No evidence of significant behavioral or biological harms resulting from behavioral counseling about risk reduction has been found. The USPSTF concluded that the potential harms of counseling are no greater than small.

USPSTF Assessment

The USPSTF concludes that there is moderate certainty that high-intensity behavioral counseling has a moderate net benefit for sexually active adolescents and for adults who are at increased risk for STIs.

The USPSTF concludes that the evidence is currently insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of behavioral counseling for non-sexually active adolescents and for adults who are not at increased risk for STIs.

Archived: Clinical Considerations

Patient Population Under Consideration

This recommendation applies to all sexually active adolescents and adults.

Assessment of Risk

All sexually active adolescents are at increased risk for STIs and should be offered counseling. Adults with current STIs or infections within the past year are at increased risk for future STIs. In addition, adults who have multiple current sexual partners should be considered at increased risk and offered counseling to prevent STIs. Married adolescents may be considered for counseling if they meet the criteria described for adults. Clinicians should also consider the communities they serve. If the practice's population has a high rate of STIs, all sexually active patients in nonmonogamous relationships may be considered to be at increased risk.

Effective Behavioral Counseling Interventions

Among the studies reviewed, successful high-intensity interventions were delivered through multiple sessions, most often in groups, with total durations from 3 to 9 hours. Little evidence suggests that single-session interventions or interventions lasting less than 30 minutes were effective in reducing STIs.1 Although 2 studies of moderate-intensity interventions did not demonstrate effect,2, 3 a third study4 demonstrated that two 20-minute counseling sessions before and after HIV testing resulted in a clinically and statistically significant reduction in STIs. The USPSTF found no studies of abstinence-only counseling programs delivered in the clinical setting.1

Suggestions for Practice Regarding the I Statement

Because of the lower incidence of STIs among adults who are not at increased risk, the potential net benefit of behavioral counseling is likely to be smaller for this population than for those at increased risk. Given the current lack of evidence of effectiveness; the substantial costs in time and money for clinicians, patients, and the health system; and the potential missed opportunity for the provision of higher-priority, evidence-based preventive services, primary care clinicians should consider not routinely offering behavioral counseling to prevent STIs to adults who are not at increased risk for infection. The USPSTF found limited evidence on the counseling of non-sexually-active adolescents, with no effect or harms from brief counseling in 1 small study. Although clinicians may not be able to identify all adolescents who are sexually active, intensive counseling for all adolescents to reach those who are not appropriately identified as at risk is not supported by current evidence and would require significant resources. The effectiveness of less intensive counseling has not been established and the benefits of intensive counseling for adolescents who are identified as at risk may not be generalizable to those who deny sexual activity.

Archived: Other Considerations


High-intensity behavioral counseling may be delivered in primary care settings or in other sectors of the health system after referral from the primary care clinician or system. In addition, risk-reduction counseling may be offered by community organizations. Strong linkages between the primary care setting and the community may greatly improve the delivery of this service.

Research Needs and Future Directions

Effective moderate- and low-intensity interventions are greatly needed to make the delivery of behavioral counseling more widely feasible. Future research on behavioral counseling interventions should use biologically confirmed outcomes to assess effectiveness. Given that individuals may be at increased risk for acquiring STIs for many reasons, additional work is needed to develop and evaluate counseling interventions for particular populations, including individuals with mental illness and individuals in relationships with partners who have other partners. Additional research is also needed on the effectiveness of behavioral counseling among men and adolescent boys. Improved methods are needed to identify sexually active adolescents in primary care. Future research should evaluate interventions targeted to adults who are not currently at increased risk. Finally, continuity of care may be an important understudied research variable as well as an underutilized practical tool for reducing STIs and increasing the effectiveness of STI counseling.

Archived: Discussion

Burden of Disease

Each year, an estimated 19 million new STIs occur in the United States, almost half of them among people from 15 to 24 years of age. Sexually transmitted infections common in the United States include Chlamydia trachomatis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, herpes simplex, HIV, human papillomavirus, Neisseria gonorrhea, syphilis, and Trichomonas vaginalis. Their direct medical costs are estimated at $15 billion annually.1

Scope of Review

The USPSTF reviewed the evidence on the benefits and harms of counseling to prevent STIs. This review included studies evaluating behavioral counseling interventions that were actually conducted in primary care settings, those judged feasible to be conducted in primary care, and those to which patients might be referred to from primary care. The USPSTF defined behavioral counseling interventions as any intervention provided to patients that included some provision of education, skill training, or support for changes in sexual behavior that promote risk reduction or risk avoidance. The review included studies targeting both adults and adolescents.

Effectiveness of Counseling to Change Behavior

Most of the evidence found by the review concerns high-intensity interventions given to sexually active adolescents and adults who were at increased risk for STIs. Five of 6 trials demonstrated statistically significant reductions in biologically confirmed STIs at 6 and 12 months after the interventions. The absolute risk reduction rate ranged from 2.6% to 11.1%, with generally higher rates of reduction among adolescents. As noted, the interventions in this group were considered "high-intensity"; they included a single 4-hour session, three 1-hour sessions over 3 consecutive weeks, four 4-hour sessions, and a 10-session intervention. One fair-quality study found that HIV testing in combination with two 20-minute individual counseling sessions (a less intensive intervention than the others reviewed) led to a significant reduction in new STIs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV, at both 6 and 12 months after the intervention. Another study found that a single, 20-minute, one-to-one skills counseling session delivered in a primary care office may reduce STIs 12 months thereafter among women who are at increased risk for STIs.5 Because the reported results combined women who received this low-intensity intervention with a group of women who received 200 minutes of group counseling, additional research is needed to determine whether lower-intensity interventions can be effective. The review did not identify any trials evaluating behavioral counseling interventions directed at adults or adolescents who are not at increased risk for STIs.

Potential Harms of Counseling

The review identified no evidence of significant behavioral or biological harms as a result of risk-reduction counseling. Multiple trials showed no evidence of increases in unprotected sex or number of sexual partners. Among adolescents, 1 trial noted a transitory increase in vaginal intercourse at 3 months without any associated increase in self-reported pregnancy. This effect on vaginal intercourse was not observed at the 9-month follow-up. Another study found that risk reduction counseling did not lead to earlier sexual debut among boys.

Estimate of Magnitude of Net Benefit

The USPSTF concluded that there is at least moderate certainty that high-intensity behavioral counseling interventions can lead to moderate net benefits for sexually active adolescents and adults who are at increased risk for STIs. Evidence was insufficient to estimate the balance of benefits and harms for nonsexually active adolescents and adults who are not at increased risk for STIs.

Archived: Recommendations of Others

The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends counseling adolescents and adults on the risks for sexually transmitted diseases and how to prevent them.6 The American Academy of Pediatrics does not have a specific recommendation regarding behavioral counseling to prevent STIs; however, in related recommendation statements, they recommend counseling for adolescents regarding abstinence and the importance of barrier contraceptives.7 The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends counseling all women regarding partner selection and use of barrier contraception to prevent STIs.8 In addition, they recommend counseling female adolescents about what constitutes responsible, consensual sexual behavior and that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the only definitive way to prevent pregnancy and STIs.9 The American Medical Association encourages all physicians to educate their patients about sexually transmitted diseases and proper condom use.10, 11

Archived: Members of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force

Members of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force* are Ned Calonge, MD, MPH, Chair, USPSTF (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Denver, Colorado); Diana B. Petitti, MD, MPH, Vice-chair, USPSTF (Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, Sierra Madre, California); Thomas G. DeWitt, MD (Children's Hospital Medical Center, Cincinnati, Ohio); Allen J. Dietrich, MD (Dartmouth Medical School, Hanover, New Hampshire); Leon Gordis, MD, MPH, DrPH (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland); Kimberly D. Gregory, MD, MPH (Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles, California); Russell Harris, MD, MPH (University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Chapel Hill, North Carolina); George Isham, MD, MS, (HealthPartners, Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota); Rosanne Leipzig, MD, PhD (Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, New York); Michael L. LeFevre, MD, MSPH (University of Missouri School of Medicine, Columbia, Missouri); Carol Loveland-Cherry, PhD, RN (University of Michigan School of Nursing, Ann Arbor, Michigan); Lucy N. Marion, PhD, RN (Medical College of Georgia, Augusta, Georgia); Virginia A. Moyer, MD, MPH (University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston, Texas); Judith K. Ockene, PhD (University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, Massachusetts); George F. Sawaya, MD (University of California, San Francisco, California); and Barbara P. Yawn, MD, MSPH, MSc (Olmsted Medical Center, Rochester, Minnesota).

*This list includes members of the Task Force at the time this recommendation was finalized. For a list of current Task Force members, go to

Disclaimer: Recommendations made by the USPSTF are independent of the U.S. government. They should not be construed as an official position of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Archived: Copyright and Source Information

This document is in the public domain within the United States.

Requests for linking or to incorporate content in electronic resources should be sent via the USPSTF contact form.

  1. Lin J, Whitlock E, O'Connor E, and Bauer V. Behavioral counseling to prevent sexually transmitted infection. Ann Intern Med 2008;149:497-508.
  2. Danielson R, Marcy S, Plunkett A, Wiest W, Greenlick MR. Reproductive health counseling for young men: what does it do? Fam Plann Perspect 1990;22:115-21. [PMID: 2379568]
  3. Wenger NS, Greenberg JM, Hilborne LH, Kusseling F, Mangotich M, Shapiro MF. Effect of HIV antibody testing and AIDS education on communication about HIV risk and sexual behavior. A randomized, controlled trial in college students. Ann Intern Med 1992;117:905-11. [PMID: 1443951]
  4. Kamb ML, Fishbein M, Douglas JM Jr, Rhodes F, Rogers J, Bolan G, et al. Efficacy of risk-reduction counseling to prevent human immunodeficiency virus and sexually transmitted diseases: a randomized controlled trial. Project RESPECT Study Group. JAMA 1998;280:1161-7. [PMID: 9777816]
  5. Jemmott JB 3rd, Jemmott LS, Braverman PK, Fong GT. HIV/STD risk reduction interventions for African American and Latino adolescent girls at an adolescent medicine clinic: a randomized controlled trial. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2005;159:440-9. [PMID: 15867118]
  6. American Academy of Family Physicians. Recommendations for Clinical Preventive Services. Leawood, KS: American Academy of Family Physicians; 2007. Accessed at on 17 June 2008.
  7. Pickering LK, Long SS, McMillan JA, eds. Red Book: 2006 Report of the Committee on Infectious Diseases, 27th ed. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics; 2006.
  8. ACOG Committee on Gynecologic Practice. ACOG Committee Opinion No. 357: Primary and preventive care: periodic assessments. Obstet Gynecol 2006;108:1615-22. [PMID: 17138804]
  9. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Committee on Adolescent Health Care. ACOG Committee Opinion 301: Sexually transmitted diseases in adolescents. Obstet Gynecol 2004;104:891-8. [PMID: 15458917]
  10. American Medical Association. Guidelines for Adolescent Preventive Services (GAPS). GAPS Monograph, Recommendation 16, page 5. Chicago: American Medical Association, 1997.
  11. American Medical Association. Education on Condom Use. Policy H-170.965. Chicago: American Medical Association; 2007. Accessed at on 13 May 2019.
Current as of: October 2008

Internet Citation: Final Recommendation Statement: Sexually Transmitted Infections: Behavioral Counseling. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. May 2019.

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