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STDs in College: Your Questions Answered

One in four people under the age of 21 in the United States is infected with an STD.

45 million people age 12 and over in the U.S. are infected with genital herpes.

And more than 65 million are living with an incurable sexually transmitted disease in the U.S.

We’ve all heard about how common STDs actually are. Personally, the second I hear “STD” muttered, I imagine those horrific slideshows of genital warts we used to have to sit through in health class. But the truth is, not all STDs have noticeable side effects. Sometimes the STDs that you can’t see at all are actually worse than the ones you can. That’s why it’s important to be informed and aware of these infections so the next time you’re considering getting a little frisky, you might think twice.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), there are two main ways that STDs are transmitted. Some diseases are transmitted when infected urethral or vaginal secretions contact mucosal surfaces. In contrast, genital ulcer diseases are primarily transmitted through contact with infected skin or mucosal surfaces.

Translated, STDs can infect you through skin-on-skin contact or through the joining of bodily fluids. By not using a condom, when vaginal secretion joins saliva, or even when semen enters an open wound, you could get infected. Either way, you’re at risk every time you choose to have sex, especially if you choose not to use protection (we’re not talking about birth control here—in this case it’s all about the condoms, condoms, condoms.)

Some STDs are curable and others aren’t. For example, symptoms of a curable STD can be treated, usually with antibiotics, and will go away. Symptoms of an incurable STD can be treated, but will recur, and the STD will never go away.

Since you’ve probably been given hundreds of STD information pamphlets over the course of high school and college, we’ll try to keep it simple. Here are some common questions about STDs that HC can answer! 
 

What are the most common STDs to look out for on college campuses?

Recently, the CDCP found that the top three most common STDs reported on college campuses are human papillomavirus (HPV), Chlamydia and gonorrhea.

First and foremost, you should know about the symptoms of and cures for these infections. We interviewed Annabeth Elliott, a Registered Nurse and the Idaho STD Program Coordinator, to get her expert advice on these STDs. Here are some important facts to know about each:

HPV – human papillomavirus

Shockingly, the most commonly contracted STD in recent years has been HPV, also known as Genital Warts. Four to six million cases of HPV are seen each year, and it has been termed the most common STD on college campuses across the country, as reported by the CDCP.

Symptoms:

Most people who have a genital HPV infection don’t show symptoms, but if symptoms do occur, they can include:

  • Genital warts (warts can be found anywhere from the genitals, to your hands and feet, even your throat)
  • Changes to the cells of the cervix, vulva, anus, or penis (these are asymptomatic but can lead to various cancers)
  • Several warts close together that take on a cauliflower shape

Cures:

Unfortunately, there is no cure for this virus, but don’t worry, there are treatments out there! Genital warts can be treated topically and changes to the cells of the cervix can be detected via pap smears and removed by a physician. If abnormal HPV cells are not removed they can lead to cervical, oral and anal cancer.

Gardasil, a vaccination recommended by the CDCP, can be used to prevent certain types of HPV. Check out HC’s article “The HPV Vaccine: Everything You Need to Know About Gardasil” for an in-depth look at how the vaccination works. 

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Chlamydia

Symptoms:

Like HPV, 75% of people infected with Chlamydia show no symptoms. If there are symptoms, however, the following are what you can expect:

  • Pain during sex
  • Irregular menstrual bleeding
  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Fever or nausea
  • Swollen or painful testicles

Cures:

Chlamydia can be easily treated and cured with antibiotics. Elliott recommends it be treated with an antibiotic called Azithromycin, a one time oral dose, or Doxycyline, taken twice a day orally for seven days. Doxycyline is the most commonly used treatment. In most cases, the infection resolves within one to two weeks. During that time you should abstain from sex.

 

Gonorrhea

Symptoms:

  • Pain or burning sensation when urinating
  • Frequent urination
  • Pain during sex
  • Spotting between periods
  • Swollen or painful testicles

Cures:

Like Chlamydia, gonorrhea can be easily treated and cured with a round of oral antibiotics. Your partner(s) should also be tested and treated for this STD, even if he or she shows no signs or symptoms.

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What are some ways to avoid STD infection?

Most all STDs can be avoided by simple procedures. “Limit your number of partners, use protection, wash your genitals with soap and water, and urinate soon after you have sex. This might help clean away some of those nasty germs before they have a chance to infect you,” recommends Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier, director of Student Health Services at McGill University. It’s easy to forget something as simple as hygiene, but it is pertinent to keep clean to steer clear of infection.

Elliott also brought up some ways to avoid STDs that we probably don’t think of every day. She warns, “Ladies: Don’t douche! Douching can increase your risk of getting an STD, or if you have an STD, it can increase the chances of serious complications. Also, circumcision in males reduces the risk of contracting HIV.”

And sometimes, the best way to avoid contracting an STD is not always the fun way. “The only way to truly protect yourself from an STD is by NOT having sex of any kind…not vaginal, oral or anal. Also, while you should ALWAYS use condoms because they do significantly decrease your risk of getting STDs, they do not erase your risk entirely,” says Dr. Mandi Beman, a board-certified Obstetrician/Gynecologist, who contributed to Chickrx.com.

Why should I get tested?

Bottom line: If you are sexually active, especially if you have multiple partners, get tested regularly. It can only benefit your health in the long run.

If you even think there’s a slight chance you could be infected, go see a doctor. It’s worth it in the end, particularly if you have an STD that can be cured quickly before it worsens. Make check-ups a regular thing. It is important to find out sooner rather than later so that potentially life-threatening health problems can be avoided for both you and your sexual partners.

“Since many STDs, like Chlamydia and HPV, are asymptomatic, you may not know you have one unless you get tested. Then you can get treated and if you have an STD you can take action to reduce the risk of spreading it to others,” says Elliott.

In fact, over 80% of people who have an STD experience no noticeable symptoms. Keep in mind that just because you can’t see the effects of an STD doesn’t mean it’s not there.

Based on gender, who’s more likely to be infected?

Beware girls! Let it be known that women contract STDs much easier than men. Elliott explains, “Women are more susceptible to STDs because of their anatomy.” Certain cervical cells make women more vulnerable to contracting STDs.

In fact, the CDCP reported that in 2009, the overall rate of reported Chlamydia infection among women in the U.S. was almost three times higher than the rate among men. Didn’t see that one coming ladies!

More women are tested for Chlamydia than males. If Chlamydia is not detected it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and complications of PID include chronic pelvic pain and infertility. It’s easier for women to notice the symptoms of certain STDs if they directly affect the female body.

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I have an STD, and I have a boyfriend/girlfriend. Is my life over?

No, but here’s a story of a girl who went through a pretty rough diagnosis:

When Sarah* was a freshman at the University of Oregon, she had a handsome athletic boyfriend. They dated for quite some time and were deeply in love until things got a little rocky. One weekend when she was at a party, Sarah decided to step into dangerous territory, and had sex with an acquaintance. Not being able to really remember what had happened that night, she decided to ignore the situation and not tell her boyfriend she had cheated.

A month later, she went to her annual pap smear at the student health center. Everything seemed normal and healthy according to the doctor, until she got a phone call the next day.

“The nurse called me and told me I had gonorrhea. My heart dropped. I knew I had to tell my boyfriend, who obviously wasn’t infected, and the truth would unravel about the night I cheated,” explained Sarah.

Not only did she have to tell her boyfriend the heartbreaking news, but she also had to tell the person she had cheated with.

“I had to make sure they both knew to take the medicine to cure the STD. It was definitely a hard conversation to have, but those are the consequences I guess.”

Luckily, gonorrhea is easily treated and cured with simple antibiotic procedures. For Sarah, it was a hard-learned lesson that awareness is key to preventing a potential sticky situation.

“I didn’t even think to ask if the guy I had sex with had an STD. Now I know, even though I’m still with the same boyfriend, to ALWAYS ask no matter how much you think you trust someone.”

How do I tell my partner(s) I’m infected?

For the sake of your personal health, it is extremely important to tell your partner(s). “If you chicken out and don’t tell your partner, it is very likely you’ll get the infection back. Approximately 20% of people who have Chlamydia and gonorrhea get it again within the next year. That increases the chance of complications and probably shows that partners are not being informed and treated,” says Elliott.

The smartest way to avoid contracting the STD again is to make sure that your partner(s) are receiving the same treatment as you; otherwise you will just pass the infection back and forth.

We know this can be a tricky task, but there are multiple ways you can tell your partner(s) you have an STD, and that they might need to seek treatment as well.

An easy way to go about this is to have the health clinic where you were tested call your partner and inform them. Not many people know this is an option, but if you are trying to avoid having the conversation, this is an uncomplicated route! Of course you will have to talk about it eventually, but at least you have the hard part out of the way. 
 

Another option is to send a confidential ecard from www.inspot.org. This service allows people to send an anonymous ecard telling their partner(s) they’ve been exposed to an STD.

Of course, for those courageous enough, just simply start the conversation. Remember that by telling them you are allowing them to be conscientious of their health and limiting the risk of spreading the infection.

Sometimes I feel awkward asking if my partner(s) are infected, especially if I don’t know them. What are some casual ways I can ask?

We took a survey of anonymous college students across the country and here’s how they ask the question before hitting the sheets with a new guy:

“I ask them up front, no point in beating around the bush when it comes to my health!”

“I offer to go get tested together. That way he doesn’t feel offended or anything.”

“If it is a random guy, I just say, ‘So, you’re clean right?’”

“I say I just got tested and ask if they have.”

“I would just ask my partner flat out – if we can’t be honest about that then we shouldn’t be having sex.”

Sources

Annabeth Elliott, RN, MSN – Idaho STD Program Coordinator

Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier – Director, Student Health Services at McGill University

Dr. Mandi Beman – board-certified Obstetrician/Gynecologist & contributor to www.chickrx.com

Various college students

http://www.nursingschools.net/blog/2010/05/10-truly-shocking-stats-on-stds-and-college-students/

http://www.elainepasqua.com/images/Eye%20opening%20Statistics.pdf

http://www.cdc.gov/family/college/#std

http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/std-symptoms/ID00053/NSECTIONGROUP=2

Photo Sources

http://www.std101.info/

http://swfasprevention.org:8081/prevention/HIVPrevention.aspx

http://shine.yahoo.com/channel/sex/5-shocking-things-many-women-don-t-know-about-sex-554627

*name has been changed

Ainslie Forsum is in her junior year at the University of Oregon, majoring in Journalism with a focus in Magazine and Public Relations. The last two summers she has completed marketing internships with Variety in Los Angeles and Seventeen Magazine in New York. Although she loves the exciting lifestyle of event planning and public relations, she has always had a soft spot for writing. She enjoys a good challenge of wit, preferably over a cup of coffee, which has become a dietary staple in her life. When she’s not at Starbucks, she can be found perusing travel magazines planning her next adventure abroad, trying out a new recipe in the kitchen or catching up with her favorite celeb gossip site, Perez Hilton. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in magazine journalism.
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