Guide to Sexually Transmitted Diseases for College Students

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Doctor holding up a wrapped condom.According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “around half of the 20 million new sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) diagnosed each year are among young people aged 15–24 years.” This age range includes college students at institutions across the U.S. However, college students may not be aware of the full extent of sexually transmitted diseases, as well as their negative health impacts.

For example, a college student who contracts the STD chlamydia may not show any initial symptoms. Others with the disease may experience discharge from their genitals, or a “burning sensation when urinating,” according to a CDC fact sheet. If chlamydia isn’t treated, it can cause more severe health issues, such as pelvic inflammatory disease and even infertility. Because a person with chlamydia may not show symptoms and may be unaware they have the disease, they will continue putting future sexual partners at risk of contracting it as well.

Chlamydia is just one of the many STDs that can impact a college student’s health. Thankfully, there are resources that can help students understand these diseases, work to prevent their spread, and address and treat them if contracted.

Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Facts and Statistics

There are several types of sexually transmitted diseases, each with a range of symptoms or ailments. How a sexually transmitted disease impacts a specific college student can vary. This is why college students need to be aware of the risk of STDs.

Types of sexually transmitted diseases

Helpful information comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. It provides a list of various types of common STDs and STIs (sexually transmitted infections). Among the STDs are the following.

  • Chlamydia: This condition can be transmitted during sexual activity such as vaginal intercourse or oral sex. It may not result in symptoms for those who have contracted it, although abdominal pain and fever are potential symptoms. This condition can be treated with antibiotics.
  • Gonorrhea: According to the list, the bacteria that causes gonorrhea can “grow and multiply rapidly in the warm, moist areas of the reproductive tract.” Symptoms include difficulty urinating and genital discharge. These may become severe if the disease spreads to other parts of the body. This STD often occurs in conjunction with chlamydia. Health care practitioners may provide treatment for both.
  • Syphilis: Like chlamydia, this STD is transmitted through vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Symptoms include a chancre, a type of sore that appears at the site of infection. This STD can be treated with antibiotics but may result in more severe health issues, such as spreading to other organs, if not treated.
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV): The list notes that this condition is the most common type of STD. It may cause genital warts as well as several types of cancer.

Additional types of STDs can include hepatitis A, B, and C, which cause damage to the liver and other parts of the body; and genital herpes, a condition that creates blisters and cold sores on the body. Treatments are available, but herpes is not curable, according to the list.

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can also be contracted through sexual activity and may lead to the development of the deadly acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. This condition weakens an individual’s immune system, making them more susceptible to other types of health threats.

Impact of Sexually Transmitted Diseases on Certain Populations

There are certain groups and populations that are more susceptible to specific STDs than others. For example, gay and bisexual adult and adolescent men “made up 70% (27,000) of the 38,739 new HIV diagnoses in the U.S. and dependent areas” in 2017, according to the CDC. The numbers of new diagnoses breakdown by race/ethnicity: men of black or African American descent comprised 37% of all new diagnoses, while Hispanics/Latinos accounted for 29%, and Caucasian men accounted for 28%, the CDC notes.

While both men and women can contract syphilis, the disease may impact women more severely. A pregnant woman who is infected with syphilis may pass that condition on to the unborn child, where it can cause ailments such as deafness and teeth deformities, the Mayo Clinic notes.

For women, gonorrhea may lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), and in men it could “be complicated by epididymitis. In rare cases, this may lead to infertility,” according to the CDC fact sheet about Gonorrhea

With chlamydia, both men and women can experience a “burning sensation when urinating,” according to MedlinePlus. More specific symptoms for women can include pain during intercourse, and for men, pain and swelling in the testicles.

It is true that certain populations have historically shown to be more susceptible to a specific type of STD. With that said, it does not mean that the disease will impact members of those groups in the exact same way.

Tools and Resources for College Students to Help Stop Sexually Transmitted Diseases

 STDs can lead to serious health problems. While there are often medicines such as antibiotics to help those afflicted by an STD, the best way to remain STD-free is to not contract them in the first place. This is why STD prevention is crucial for college students.

Tools for Preventing Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Condoms are one of the most common and easily accessible methods to prevent pregnancy and protect individuals from receiving and transmitting STDs. According to Planned Parenthood,  “condoms protect you and your partners from STDs by preventing contact with bodily fluids (like semen and vaginal fluids) that can carry infections. And because condoms cover your penis, they help protect against certain STDs like herpes and genital warts that are spread through skin-to-skin contact.” Condoms have a high success rate but may not prevent transmission of STDs for every sexual encounter. For example, a condom may break during use or become defective if not used correctly.

The CDC notes that vaccinations can help prevent afflictions such as HPV and hepatitis B, and also limit the spread of these STDs to sexual partners. Many of these vaccinations can be received at health clinics, doctor’s offices, and larger pharmacies. Reducing the number of sexual partners, whether through abstinence or practicing mutual monogamy, can reduce the likelihood of contracting an STD.

Getting Tested for STDs and Other Conditions

As noted earlier with chlamydia, it’s common for the disease to show no symptoms. This could lead to unknowingly spreading the disease to other sexual partners and developing more severe health ailments down the road.

College students who are sexually active, or are considering becoming so, should get tested for STDs. Organizations such as Planned Parenthood offer a range of testing services for specific STDs. College health organizations may also offer low-cost or free STD testing for students. Other health care organizations, such as hospitals and clinics, often provide STD testing as well.

Communicating with Partners About Sexual History

It’s possible that a student may contract a sexually transmitted disease during their college experience, or be actively treated for an STD when they meet a new sexual partner. It may not be easy to discuss these conditions with their sexual partners. However, it is important that individuals are open about their sexual history and any STDs they may have or be at risk for.

Planned Parenthood provides a list of suggestions to help individuals communicate with their partners regarding their health status. These suggestions include having information prepared in advance. This will help answer any questions your partner may have about your STD or its symptoms, as well as the need for both partners to get tested.

Consulting with Medical Professionals Regarding Sexual Health Questions

College students may have specific questions regarding their sexual health or be curious about STDs. They may also feel embarrassed about discussing the topic with their friends or families. Health care practitioners and medical professionals can provide guidance and recommendations regarding sexual health topics to college students. This guidance can take place in a setting that ensures privacy, like a counselor’s office or clinic examination room.

Speaking with U.S. News & World Report, Daniel Myers of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine recommends that patients have prepared questions to ask doctors regarding sexual health, and to understand that their doctor or practitioner is a trusted confidante.

Tools and Resources for Health Practitioners Regarding Sexually Transmitted Diseases

College students may also become more knowledgeable about their sexual health and sexually transmitted diseases on their own. Others may remain uninformed about potential sexual diseases. Medical practitioners have a unique opportunity to inform college students about STDs and help students live the healthiest lives possible.

Provide Easily Accessible STD Prevention Tools

Condoms are one of the most commonly used contraceptive devices, as well as a tool that can help prevent the spread of STDs. Health care practitioners, as well as their organizations, can provide free condoms to college students who may be currently sexually active or planning to become so.

Additionally, health care practitioners can provide information regarding the necessity of sexually active students to be tested for STDs, as well as free or low-cost STD screenings.

Act Professionally and Compassionately When Consulting with Students

A college student who is worried they have contracted an STD may feel embarrassed and reluctant to discuss the situation with another person. Or a student who wants to learn more about STDs and sexual health, in general, may feel hesitant to discuss those topics.

This is why it is important that health care professionals show professionalism and compassion when working with college students. Taking time to understand their concerns and convey empathy can help them feel more confident and in control about issues relating to their sexual health.

Use Media and Resources to Inform Students About STD Risks

Spreading knowledge and awareness of the potential symptoms associated with STDs can help students be more cognizant of the potential risks associated with sexual activity. Disseminating this information can take many forms. It can take place within health organizations on campus, during larger campus or welcoming events, through fliers posted in school buildings, and on social media.

This type of educational initiative will not only help generate awareness of STDs, but can help college students become more engaged about taking charge of their own health.

Be Healthy and Keep Safe from Sexually Transmitted Diseases

The only sure way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases is by practicing abstinence. Otherwise, there are going to be some risks of contracting an STD.

However, tools and strategies exist that can help prevent the spread of these conditions.

Various types of treatments, medicines, vaccinations, and procedures can assist in treating or managing STDs. Public health professionals serve an important role, too, in helping spread awareness of these afflictions and how to prevent them. With this knowledge and medical methods in place, college students can take control of their sexual health and work toward a safe and healthy future.