According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), half of the people in the United States who are infected with a sexually transmitted infection (STI) every year are under the age of 25 and 25% of sexually active adolescent females have an STI. This puts college students at a high risk for infection. There are ways to avoid contracting an STI, the surest of which is abstinence. Otherwise, for students who are sexually active, condoms are the most effective way to prevent the spread of infections. It should be noted, however, that they are not 100% effective because they can break, be misused, or not entirely cover the infected area.
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What is an STI?
Sexually transmitted infections, sometimes referred to as sexually transmitted diseases or STDs, are bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections that are spread by sexual contact. This includes vaginal, anal, or oral penetration or the sharing of sex toys. Note that while many infections are transmitted during intercourse, some infections, notably herpes, can be contracted from oral contact alone.
What are the most common STIs?
There are dozens of sexually transmitted infections, but the majority of new cases come from a smaller group. The most commonly contracted STIs are:
- Chlamydia: Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that is most often spread through vaginal and anal intercourse, but it is also possible to contract it orally. People who have been infected rarely show symptoms, and those who do may notice their symptoms (burning during urination, abnormal discharge) well after actually becoming infected. Chlamydia is treated with antibiotics.
- The CDC recommends that sexually active women less than 25 years old and men who have sex with other men be tested annually for chlamydia.
- Gonorrhea: Gonorrhea is a common bacterial infection that spreads through vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse. Most individuals who develop gonorrhea find that it is asymptomatic, but those who do experience symptoms will likely notice burning during urination, discharge, pain in the testicles, or vaginal bleeding. Gonorrhea can cause permanent damage in both males and females if left untreated, leading to pelvic inflammatory disease in women (that causes further damage in the form of scar tissue, infertility, and long-term pain) and possible sterility in men. While treatable, drug-resistant strains of gonorrhea are becoming more common.
- The CDC recommends that sexually active women less than 25 years old and men who have sex with other men be tested annually for gonorrhea.
- Hepatitis B: Hepatitis B is a serious liver infection that can manifest in one of two ways: Acute Hepatitis B occurs within six months of exposure to the virus; causes symptoms such as fever, nausea, vomiting, dark-colored urine, and joint pain; and generally lasts a few weeks. Chronic Hepatitis B occurs when a person does not recover within a few weeks and the virus stays in their body; this can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer. Hepatitis B spreads when individuals exchange bodily fluids, including during vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse. It is possible that you received a series of vaccines to protect you from Hepatitis B as a child; if you have not been vaccinated, contact your doctor about doing so as soon as possible.
- Herpes simplex virus: There are two herpes viruses, type 1 and type 2. Type 1 commonly causes oral herpes (cold sores or blisters on the mouth), while type 2 commonly causes genital herpes (blisters in, on, or around the penis, vagina, or anus) Since herpes is a virus, there is no cure, but symptoms can be managed with medication. Herpes spreads easily, all it takes is skin-to-skin contact, even if an individual is asymptomatic. It is, however, most contagious when there is a blister or sore. An individual with oral herpes can spread the infection to the genitals of another during oral intercourse, as can an individual with genital herpes. Condoms may not fully protect against herpes depending on the location of the infection, and all intercourse should be avoided when an individual is experiencing an outbreak.
- HIV/AIDS: The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks the immune system until the body no longer has any ability to fight off infections and diseases, no matter how small. This final stage of HIV is called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). There is no cure for HIV, but there are effective antiretroviral medications that individuals can take to stop the progression and prevent the transmission of the virus. The earlier HIV is detected, the sooner treatment can begin and the less damage the immune system will incur. HIV is spread through unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral intercourse, as well as through blood and breast milk. HIV is not spread through saliva or skin-to-skin contact. Furthermore, having another STI can make you more susceptible to acquiring HIV from an HIV-positive partner, and an individual with HIV and another STI is more likely to transmit the infection as well.
- The CDC recommends that men who have sex with other men, individuals with multiple partners, and individuals who have been diagnosed with another STI be tested annually for HIV.
- Human papillomavirus (HPV): HPV is an extremely common group of viruses, so common that almost all sexually active individuals will contract HPV at some point. It may or may not show symptoms, but it is transmittable even by individuals who are asymptomatic during vaginal, anal, or oral intercourse. HPV is particularly concerning because some strains of the virus can lead to genital warts, mouth cancer, anal cancer, penile cancer, cervical cancer, or vaginal cancer, though the majority of individuals who contract HPV don’t ever know that they’re infected before the infection goes away. The CDC urges all children to get a series of vaccines that protect against the virus when they are 11 or 12 years old. If you have not already been vaccinated, you can still receive the vaccines through age 26 if you are female or age 21 if you are male.
- Syphilis: Syphilis ia a bacterial infection that is spread when an individual comes into direct contact with a syphilis sore during vaginal, anal, or oral intercourse. It initially causes sores at and around the infection site (on or around sex organs, the anus, or the mouth), but progresses to a rash and fever. Without treatment, syphilis can spread to the brain or heart, causing irreparable damage and possibly death. Syphilis can easily be cured with antibiotics.
- The CDC recommends that men who have sex with men and individuals with HIV be regularly tested for syphilis.
- Trichomoniasis: Trichomoniasis is caused by a parasite and is easily cured with a course of antibiotics. More common in women than in men, it is passed between partners during vaginal intercourse. Symptoms include genital itching, pain or burning during urination, and discharge. However, less than one-third of individuals with trichomoniasis actually develop symptoms.
Other relatively common STIs include:
What is the first step to treatment?
Many people who have an STI don’t suffer any symptoms, but that doesn’t mean they can’t pass on the infection. Protect yourself and your partner(s) and get tested regularly, especially if you’ve had unprotected sex or have a new partner. While this is especially important if you’re sexually active, remember that some STIs can be passed just from oral contact (namely, herpes and syphilis in individuals with sores). If your body starts to behave unusually or you develop any symptoms in the days or weeks following intercourse, you should make an appointment to get tested.
Testing is often free and always confidential. Familiarize yourself with your campus health center. Some can provide STI testing, or they can point you in the right direction. You may also be able to get tested at your local Planned Parenthood or doctor’s office. No matter who you choose to see, your care provider will be happy to answer your questions and help you out to the best of their abilities. Find a testing site near you.
How often should I get tested?
How often you get tested depends on your sex, sexual orientation, number of partners, and lifestyle (e.g., how regularly you engage in unprotected sex). A general rule is to get tested for the first time as soon as you become sexually active and to continue to get tested after every new partner. If that isn’t feasible, get tested as often as you can. For more information, check with the CDC. They maintain screening recommendations specific to young women, pregnant women, men who have sex with men, and people with HIV. If you are transgender, intersex, or nonbinary, talk with your doctor about your sexual habits and your anatomy. They can help design a series of STI tests that are right for you.
The guidelines most relevant to students are as follows:
- All individuals between the ages of 13 and 64 should be tested for HIV at least once.
- Women under 25 years old who are sexually active should be tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea once a year.
- Men who have sex with other men should be tested for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis at least once a year and may benefit from regular HIV testing.
STI testing is very easy. Depending on which infection(s) your doctor is testing for, you may have to give a blood sample, a urine sample, and/or a swab of the infected area. A doctor may be able to determine visually whether you have an STI, but most lab results come back within days or weeks.
I have an STI. Now what?
Every day, over one million people are infected with a sexually transmitted infection, so you are not alone. Know that being diagnosed with an STI is not the end of the world. Be proud that you got tested and found the infection early.
If you have a curable STI, your doctor can help you eliminate an infection with antibiotics. Before you are cured, there is the risk of a recurrence. While you are being treated for an STI, do not engage in any sexual activity; you can spread an infection or become reinfected despite being on medication. Also, for antibiotics to be effective, you must take the entire course of drugs as prescribed by your doctor. Do not share them with your partner or stop taking them when you feel better (this can contribute to the rise of antibiotic resistant infections). Wait a week after finishing any medication before engaging in intercourse. If you still have symptoms, call your doctor. Consider getting retested two or three months after treatment to ensure that you are healthy and have truly eliminated the infection.
If you have an incurable, but treatable, STI, you need to have a long conversation with your doctor to understand your infection, your treatment options, and how to protect your partners from your infection in the future.
Regardless of whether your STI is curable or chronic, you need to tell your partner(s) that you have been infected, that they are at risk, and that they should get tested. You might feel ashamed or embarrassed, but immediate action on your part can prevent the serious side effects that may occur if an STI were to go untreated.
How do I tell my partner that I have an STI?
- Educate yourself. Before you tell your partner, talk about your STI with a doctor and read about treatment. Some infections are completely curable. All are treatable. Know what the infection is, what its symptoms are (if any), and how it’s treated. When you tell your partner, offer them basic information about the infection and recommend credible sources. Did the campus health center diagnose and treat you? Would you recommend them? Give your partner the information you wish you’d had right away.
- Roleplay with a friend. Your friends are your allies. Seek their support during your treatment and before making any tough phone calls to partners or former partners. Rehearse those phone calls with them. The more you talk about it, the better prepared you will be.
- Be prompt. Telling a partner or former partner about a potential risk to their sexual health should be done as soon as possible. If they remain oblivious, they could be practicing unprotected intercourse and putting even more people at risk. Some infections need timely treatment. Be courteous and tell your partner today.
What if my partner or former partner tells me that they have an STI?
- Don’t blame your partner. It’s not their fault. Accidents happen. It could just as easily have happened to you.
- Ask questions. Knowledge is power. Ask about the infection, how it’s treated, and what the symptoms are. Ask about getting tested and where to go. You’re in this together.
- Thank them for being honest. They could have easily kept it to themselves and let you figure it out on your own. They could have gotten treatment for themselves and hoped you never found out. It was extremely hard for them to tell you, so thank them for respecting you and your body.
- Follow up with your doctor. Get tested, even if you haven’t exhibited any symptoms.
Page last updated: 03/2019