Every year more than 15 million Americans contract a sexually transmitted disease, or STD. And almost two thirds of STDs occur in young people under the age of 25, which means college students must be especially careful to protect their sexual health. The statistics can be frightening, but keep in mind that all STDs are preventable.
The other good news is that many STDs can be successfully treated if caught early. The problem is that some diseases may take weeks to cause symptoms or, in certain cases, may not cause symptoms at all. So without getting tested, many people don’t realize they are infected and may unwittingly pass the disease to their partners.
An Ounce of Prevention
The only surefire way to prevent an STD is to abstain from sex. And when it comes to practicing safe sex, the first rule is: Always use condoms (latex), and use them correctly! Most college health centers sell condoms and some even provide them at no charge. Regardless, if you decide to be sexually active, protect yourself every single time.
While condoms offer protection from many STDs, including HIV, they are not 100 percent effective. So talk to your partner about his or her sexual health, and be honest about your own. Getting tested together will protect you both.
It sounds terrifying, but most tests for STDs are relatively quick and painless. Just make an appointment with the health center or your own doctor. (Remember, your school wants to keep the student body healthy, so they make the process as easy as possible.)
Some tests are free and some involve a small fee—but it’s a small price to pay for good health. Still, if you can’t scrape up the cash, you can also drop by a free clinic in your city or town. Check with the local health department or do a quick search for free STD clinics in your area. Wherever you go, test results typically come back within days and are completely confidential.
WHAT SHOULD I BE TESTED FOR?
An estimated 2.8 million new cases of Chlamydia occur each year, but many go undetected because the disease doesn’t cause symptoms in more than half of infected people. If they do occur, symptoms in women include lower abdominal pain. In men, symptoms include painful urination. In both males and females an unusual discharge from the vagina or penis may occur. Left untreated, Chlamydia can cause serious illnesses, such as Pelvic Inflammatory Disease in women, and damage the reproductive organs. Chlamydia may also facilitate the transmission of HIV. Tests for Chlamydia require either a urine sample or specimen swabbed from the penis or cervix. The good news is the disease can be completely cured by a course of antibiotics. Condoms are also effective in preventing Chlamydia.
Like Chlamydia, gonorrhea is a bacterial infection that can cause serious damage to the reproductive system if left untreated. Symptoms include a burning sensation while urinating and lower abdominal pain in women. Unusual discharges from the vagina or penis may also be present. Antibiotics generally can cure gonorrhea, which can be diagnosed from a urine or specimen sample from the infected area. Condoms are effective protection from this disease.
Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)
HPV is by far the most common STD for all age groups; it is estimated that at least half of all sexually active men and women will contract HPV, with the majority having no symptoms. HPV is actually a group of viruses that can be classified into “high” and “low” risk categories. Although both can cause genital warts, high risk HPV can lead to changes in the cervix of women that increase the risk of cervical cancer. A physical exam and Pap test can detect the disease in women. There is currently no test for men. Because the disease can develop in areas not protected by condoms, the effectiveness of condom use is not well defined; however, studies show that populations with higher condom use have lower rates of HPV infection. In addition, the recent development of an HPV vaccine may prove useful in combating the spread of more serious strains of this virus.
Once contracted, herpes will remain present in the infected person for the rest of his or her life. The disease causes outbreaks of sores on the genitalia. Over time the number of outbreaks tends to lessen but the person can still pass the disease on to other sexual partners. During an outbreak, a doctor can diagnose the disease by visual inspection or by analyzing a sample of the sores. If sores are absent, blood tests can be useful in diagnosing the disease. Like HPV, genital herpes can also occur in areas not protected by condoms. Although it is best to abstain from sexual contact when sores are present, the disease can be passed even when signs of the disease are not present.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. People with AIDS have a severely weakened immune system that can prove to be fatal. Symptoms of HIV include fatigue, rapid weight loss, swollen lymph nodes, unusual spots on the skin or tongue and recurrent fever. Most colleges and universities offer free, confidential HIV testing. HIV has no known cure, although treatments do exist to keep the virus under control. Numerous studies have shown that the use of condoms is extremely effective in preventing the spread of HIV.
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that can be successfully treated with penicillin. While not common, syphilis can be extremely serious if left untreated. The disease can infect the brain and spinal cord, causing paralysis, dementia and blindness in the latter stages. Early symptoms include ulcers which can be followed by a rash or lesions. Syphilis is commonly diagnosed by looking at a sample from a sore under a microscope. It may also be diagnosed by a blood test. Syphilis is spread through direct contact; condoms do not offer complete protection.
This form of liver disease can be transmitted sexually. Chronic hepatitis can cause liver failure and death. Symptoms include loss of appetite, fatigue, dark urine and jaundice. A blood test for Hepatitis B is available, but may not show the presence of the disease until several months after exposure. A three-dose vaccine, given over a six-month period, offers full protection for Hepatitis B.
And the Results Are In
If you are diagnosed with a STD, tell any and all of your past and current sexual partners who may be at risk. Seek counseling for additional information and support. Abstain from sex while you are undergoing treatment, and remember that having the disease once doesn’t necessarily prevent you from getting it again. Practicing safe sex in the future will help you avoid another trip to the doctor.
Check out these websites for more information about STDs and STD testing.