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Of all the to-dos on your back-to-school list, brushing up on protecting yourself from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) should be near the top.
According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, STI rates are climbing across the country. Overall infection rates jumped 7% in 2021; this includes a spike in syphilis cases, which went up 32% in just one year. Gonorrhea cases rose by 5% and chlamydia by 4% in the latest data.
STIs are passed from person to person during sex. This can be due to unprotected activity that involves exchange of bodily fluids or skin-to-skin contact with sores or lesions. STI can also spread from mother to child during childbirth and through sharing of contaminated needles during drug use.
These infections pose risk to your health, now and in the future. However, many STIs can be treated or even cured when caught and managed early. That’s why it’s so important for young adults—and everyone who is sexually active—to understand how STIs spread and how to protect yourself and others from contracting them.
Tips for preventing a sexually transmitted infection.
Some STIs do not have noticeable symptoms, which means they are easily spread between partners who do not know they are infected. So, one of the best STI tips is to get tested regularly, even if you don’t have symptoms.
Those who are at increased risk of contracting an STI are people who sex with multiple or anonymous partners, don’t use protection, and don’t get tested. Remember these tips to reduce your risk:
- Get screened for STIs during your annual check-up with your primary care doctor or OB/GYN.
- If you’ve had a new partner, get tested. Don't wait for your check-up if there’s been a change in your sexual activity.
- Use protection when you’re having sex. Barrier methods like condoms help limit contact with bodily fluids and reduce your chance of spreading infections.
- If you are in a monogamous relationship (one partner), both of you should still be tested for STIs.
STI prevention for college students.
College students should take advantage of campus resources to prevent the spread of STIs, including:
- Visit the campus health center. Many colleges and universities offer free STI testing and discreet connections for follow-up care.
- Get tested for STIs at least once a year. Every six months is better, especially if you change sexual partners.
- Stock up on condoms and other prevention measures. You may have seen bowls of free condoms around campus, in the dorms, or in the health center. Next time you pass by, grab a few and keep them handy.
Primer on Bacterial STIs: Syphilis, Chlamydia, and Gonorrhea.
While some infections do not have symptoms, they can still cause major health problems. These asymptomatic infections can remain in the body silently, damaging organs and tissues, complicating reproduction, and spreading to sexual partners.
Syphilis may have no immediate symptoms, and those that arise vary depending upon how long the person has been infected:
- Stage 1: A painless sore called a chancre may appear, usually near where the infection entered the body. It can look like a small bump and may go away after a few weeks.
- Stage 2: A rash can appear on the hands and feet. It doesn’t itch but may appear brown or red. Other symptoms include fever, headache, and fatigue.
- Latent stage: When the rash clears up, syphilis may stay hidden in the body without symptoms. People may not feel sick, but the infection is still present.
- Stage 3: If syphilis isn’t treated, it can lead to serious problems, affecting the brain, heart, nervous system, and other organs. Symptoms can include difficulty with movement, numbness, trouble remembering, blindness, and heart problems.
Untreated, stage three syphilis can disrupt the central nervous system and cause major cardiovascular problems such as aortic aneurysm. Large sores called gummas can develop on the skin, bones, and internal organs, and syphilis can lead to blindness.
On the other hand, syphilis can be easily treated with antibiotics if it’s caught in the early stages. Get tested regularly, especially if you are having sex with new partners.
A pregnant patient with syphilis may transmit the disease to the baby through the blood in the placenta, and this can have serious consequences for the fetus. That’s why we screen all pregnant patients for syphilis, because if we catch it early it’s easy to treat.
Chlamydia can be transmitted without showing symptoms. In fact, many people with chlamydia have no symptoms and might not be aware they are infected. If symptoms do show up, they may appear a few weeks after infection and can include pain and burning during urination, unusual discharge, and pain or swelling in the genitals. If left untreated, chlamydia can lead to serious problems with the reproductive system.
Chlamydia can pass to a newborn during childbirth, which can lead to a serious infection. We screen all pregnant patients for chlamydia so we can provide treatment early to clear the infection. When we can treat chlamydia, the risk to the baby is very low.
Talk with your doctor if you think you may have been exposed to chlamydia. They can give you a simple test to find out if you are infected and treat you with antibiotics if necessary.
Gonorrhea is often asymptomatic, so people who are infected may not know they have it. If symptoms develop, they can include yellow, green, or white discharge from the genitals, pain upon urination, and swelling of the genitals. If left untreated, gonorrhea can cause problems with the reproductive system that may limit your ability to have children in the future.
Gonorrhea can be passed from mother to baby during childbirth, so we screen all pregnant mothers. Like chlamydia, the risk to the baby is very low if we can treat gonorrhea infection in the birthing patient.
See a doctor if you have been exposed to gonorrhea. After a simple test it can be treated with antibiotic medication that will make you feel better.
Facts About Viral STIs: HIV and Herpes.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks the immune system, reducing the body’s ability to defend itself against infections and diseases. HIV is mainly spread through contact with bodily fluids, most commonly during unprotected sex, sharing needles to inject drugs, or during childbirth or breastfeeding.
Soon after infection, HIV may not show any symptoms. Or people may have mild, flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, tiredness, and swollen glands. HIV can be transmitted with or without symptoms.
If HIV is left untreated it can lead to AIDS, a more serious disease in which the immune system is severely damaged. This leaves the body vulnerable to opportunistic infections like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and more. AIDS can also increase the risk of developing cancers, particularly those linked to viruses. AIDS can lead to wasting syndrome, a condition in which a person experiences severe weight loss, muscle loss, and weakness. When a person has AIDS, even common infections like a simple cold can become life-threatening.
HIV can be detected with a simple blood test. While there is no cure, medicines can help keep it under control. Taking these drugs, called antiretrovirals, can help people with HIV live healthy lives and reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others.
The best way to prevent HIV is to practice safer sex, including using condoms and only having sex with a trusted partner. Newer drugs called PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) can reduce the chances of getting HIV from sex by about 99%. Your doctor can help you understand the details about taking PrEP, and whether this medication is right for you.
Related reading: Six Things to Know About HIV and Testing
Herpes is a virus that is usually spread through direct contact with the sores or blisters of an infected person. One type of herpes (herpes simplex virus type 1) is often transmitted through mouth-to-mouth contact like kissing. It can result in cold sores around the mouth. Herpes simplex virus type 2 can cause sores around the genitals. It is usually spread through sexual activity.
Some people with herpes may not show any symptoms but can still spread the virus. When symptoms appear, they most often include painful sores and blisters, itching, tingling, and flu-like symptoms.
Herpes can go through periods of activity, called outbreaks. At other times it is inactive, or dormant. There is no cure for herpes, but antiviral medicines can help manage symptoms and reduce outbreaks.
The best way to prevent herpes is to avoid contact with the sores of an infected person. If you have herpes, you should not kiss or have direct sexual contact during an outbreak to avoid spreading the virus.
Sexual health care is self-care.
When it comes to sexually transmitted infections, prevention is the best strategy. Use condoms and get tested regularly for STIs, especially if you have a new partner. We’re here to help. Open, honest conversations with your doctor about your sexual activity can help you stay informed and empowered to care for your sexual health and keep STI away this semester.