Illustration of college students sitting on an oversized stack of books, tiny cartoon viruses and bacteria floating around them.

STDs in College

While the goal of most college experiences is to prepare you for life ahead, the experience of contracting an STD in college can create life-altering complications. Entering college for the first time as a young adult can be an exciting new chapter in life, and contracting any type of sexually transmitted disease or infection can negatively affect your physical and mental health, future partnerships and academic performance. As a college student or soon-to-be college student, you may often find yourself preoccupied with upcoming exams, but there’s another set of test scores you should be worried about: your STD testing results.

Since 2013, STD incidences have been on the rise, and one of the most at-risk populations are young adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), nearly half of the 20 million new sexually transmitted disease diagnoses made each year are among people aged 15 to 24. About 24% of all new HIV infections are among young people aged 13 to 24 years. The CDC estimates that one in two sexually active persons will contract some kind of STD or STI by age 25.

In a 2019 survey, the CDC reported that the total cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis in the US reached an all-time high in 2018. Among these new cases, people aged 15 to 24 represented a large percentage. In the report, the CDC noted that 1.5 million new cases of chlamydia and about 400,000 new cases of gonorrhea were reported during the year. The 15 to 24 age group accounted for 65% of those new chlamydia cases and 53% of the gonorrhea cases. Even though young people account for more than half of these new STD instances, a recent survey reported that only about 12% had been tested for STDs in the previous year. This suggests that there may be even more unreported cases.

For these reasons and more, it’s important to remain proactive and take care of your sexual health. While most STDs and STIs are curable or can be managed, they can also result in life-long health complications if left untreated. Remaining knowledgeable about the risks and taking the necessary precautions will help keep you and your partners safe from STDs in college.

College Risk Factors

When discussing the various factors that put young adults at higher risk for STIs and STDs in college, it is important to recognize the significance of the transition into adulthood. Not only does the typical college age group coincide with the legal drinking age and era of self-discovery, but considerable social pressures exist as well. These factors, in combination with newly established independence, are part of what puts young adults at risk for contracting STDs in college.

Independence

One of the most exciting and slightly worrying aspects of college is the new feeling of independence. Many students continue to live with their parents throughout their college years, but a majority choose to live in on-campus housing, first apartments or homes. Some educational institutions mandate that all freshman students live on-campus their first year. Young adults in college get to experience life outside of their guardian’s care and make their own choices, often for the first time in their life.

For many young people, college is a time that allows them to freely express and explore their sexuality. However, many students fail to prioritize their sexual health while in pursuit of better understanding themselves. Whether due to poor decision-making, lack of resources or other factors, about 50% of all sexually active individuals will contract an STI by the time they reach the age of 25.

Understandably, young adults can become caught up in their new surroundings and experiences. When entering into a world full of possibilities, it is easy to forget to put your well-being first. By treating this newly found independence as the serious and wonderful thing that it is, you can make educated decisions that will prioritize your sexual health and help prevent the spread of STDs.

Lack of Sex Education

Informed decisions on sexual health can only be made with proper sex education. This education is usually provided through primary school education or in the home. Unfortunately, while most parents support the inclusion of sex education in middle school or high school curriculum, the thoroughness of such education varies greatly by the school district, as shown by the CDC Student Health Profiles. Only 39 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education and/or HIV education. 28 of these states (and Washington DC) mandate both sex education and HIV education. Many of these programs have an abstinence-based focus, which means that students often do not receive the education they need to prevent STDs, STIs and pregnancy. Many people are also not educated on the asymptomatic (lack of symptoms) nature of STDs and STIs, which may lead to unintentional spread.

Social Pressures and Curiosity

Another factor that puts young adults at risk for STDs in college is the often drastic change in social norms. Because sexual relationships are more normalized in college as compared to high school, this shift can naturally lead to students becoming more sexually active. This sexual activity can be prompted by a variety of reasons, including increased social pressure and curiosity.

As college is an unfamiliar place where young adults decide who they want to become as an adult, many young adults feel an understandable need to fit in and learn more about themselves. Pressure from peers, social expectations and curiosity can lead many students to become more sexually active than they have been previously. With this increase in sexual activity also comes the increased possibility of contracting an STD or STI.

Drinking Age

Like sexual relationships, drinking is also more common and accepted in college. Amid new freedoms, stressful classes and increased social pressures, alcohol abuse is a notable problem for college students. Unfortunately, this behavior has been known to correlate to irresponsible sexual practices. According to the American College Health Association, the consumption of alcohol increases the likelihood that college students will engage in sex, specifically with casual partners and without the protection of barriers such as condoms. These lapses in judgment caused by alcohol abuse can put both parties at risk of contracting STDs. The CDC mentions that having multiple or anonymous sexual partners and engaging in sexual behaviors while under the influence of alcohol increases the likelihood of contracting STDs and HIV. Comprised decision-making poses a great risk to sexual health, especially when engaging with unfamiliar sexual partners or unprotected sex.

Perception of Invincibility 

Another factor that contributes to STDs in college would be the common feeling of invincibility. While the perception of invincibility is most often thought of as an adolescent phase, it can also be experienced by young adults. Young adults with this perception understand that bad things happen to others, but do not believe that anything bad could happen to them personally. This feeling of invincibility can lead to high-risk sexual behaviors because the person feels as though they are the exception to the circumstance. 

Most Common STDs in College

While STDs do not discriminate based on age or location, certain types are more common among college students. These STDs are more widespread due to their ease of transmission, asymptomatic nature and general commonality. 

HPV

According to the CDC, HPV is the most common STD on college campuses. Because HPV is often asymptomatic, transmission is very common. The CDC estimates that 80% of people will contract some strain of the virus in their lifetime.

HPV, or human papillomavirus, is an STD with more than 150 active different strains. Like other STDs, HPV can be transmitted through vaginal, anal and oral sex, as well as certain other kinds of intimate skin-to-skin contact. These strains range from benign to very serious. Many strains do not cause those infected to develop any kind of symptoms. Other, more serious strains can cause genital warts or cancer, including cervical, anal, vaginal, vulvar and oropharyngeal cancers. The National Cancer Institute estimates that HPV is responsible for approximately 31,500 cases of cancer each year, including nearly all cases of cervical and anal cancer and approximately 75%, 70% and 69% of vaginal, oropharyngeal and vulvar cancer cases, respectively.

Though there is a series of vaccines available for HPV, and many schools require students to have up-to-date vaccination records, the HPV vaccines do not protect against every strain of HPV. The vaccines help prevent several strains of HPV that are known to cause cancers and genital warts, but there are still more than 100 strains of HPV that the vaccines do not protect against. Many young people who have already been vaccinated are unaware that the HPV vaccination is not all-encompassing, which puts them at risk for unintentionally contracting or spreading the virus to others. 

The CDC recommends 2 doses of the HPV vaccine for both boys and girls ages 11 to 12. Unvaccinated young adults up to the age of 26 can receive the vaccine as well, but many students lack the necessary knowledge or resources to access the vaccinations. Specifically, a 2019 study showed that nearly half of college student participants were unaware that HPV immunizations were available to them through their campus health center or local youth clinic. The same study also uncovered that the percentage of vaccinated students within the sample population fell about 30% below the US Department of Health and Human Services goal. 

Chlamydia

After HPV, the most common STD for people between the ages of 15 and 24 years is chlamydia. As we mentioned earlier, the CDC reported approximately 1.5 million cases of chlamydia in 2015. This number represents the highest number of annual cases of any condition (not just STDs) reported to the CDC.

Like HPV and other STDs, chlamydia is transmitted through vaginal, anal and oral sex. Chlamydia is often asymptomatic as well, but can still cause serious adverse effects, including infertility, sterility, ectopic pregnancy, chronic pelvic pain, scarring and pelvic inflammatory disease. The CDC estimates that undiagnosed STDs, including chlamydia, cause 24,000 women to become infertile every year.

Though most people do not experience any symptoms, symptoms of chlamydia can include a burning sensation when urinating, pain during sex, genital or rectal discharge, pain and itching, back and abdominal discomfort, fever, nausea and spotting between periods. If symptoms develop, they usually are not apparent until 1-3 weeks after exposure. 

In 95% of cases, chlamydia is curable with antibiotics. Sexually active individuals need to get tested regularly to avoid complications to easily medicated STIs such as chlamydia. 

Herpes

After chlamydia and HPV, the third most common infection among young adults is herpes. According to the CDC, approximately 20% of all college students have the herpes virus. That’s 1 in 5. For those aged 14 to 49, the CDC estimates that 1 in 8 people have genital herpes and 1 in 2 people have oral herpes.

Herpes is a group of two different viruses, HSV-1 and HSV-2. Though either virus can cause either infection, HSV-1 is typically linked to oral herpes and HSV-2 is typically linked to genital herpes. Like other STDs, herpes can be spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex, but also in other kinds of intimate skin-to-skin contact, including kissing. Herpes typically causes outbreaks of sores to appear in infected areas, such as the mouth, lips, throat, vagina, vulva, cervix, penis, anus, scrotum, butt and thighs. While herpes is known for these outbreaks, it can still be asymptomatic, or, if symptoms do present, they can go unnoticed. Studies show that nearly 90% of people with genital herpes don’t know they have it. Typically, after contracting herpes, your first outbreak occurs within 6 months, but the virus can live in the body for years without causing an outbreak.

While there is no cure for herpes, there are medications that can lessen the severity, duration and frequency of outbreaks.

Prevention and Testing 

Of course, whether you’re in college or not, the most reliable way to avoid contracting an STD is to abstain from any kind of sexual activity or be in a mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner. Unfortunately, those aren’t always realistic avenues for everyone. But, there is a multitude of safer sex practices and precautions that can be taken to protect your and your partner(s) sexual health. 

Use Protection

After abstinence, one of the most reliable methods of STD and STI prevention is the use of protection. Protection includes the use of latex condoms or dental dams. By using a condom during anal, oral or vaginal sex, the likelihood of contraction decreases exponentially. 

However, not all STDs can be prevented with the use of an internal or external condom; due to the limited coverage and unique aspects of each disease, the possibility of transmission remains very real. Due to this, consistent use of protection, limiting your number of sexual partners and regular STD testing are all safer sex practices to help avoid STDs in college.  

Get Tested

To avoid contracting STDs in college, you should also make sure to get tested regularly. If you’re sexually active and under the age of 25, the CDC recommends that you get tested at least yearly. Encourage your partners to get tested regularly as well. Knowing your status and the status of a partner or potential partner is essential to help protect yourself from STDs in college. You should always get tested as soon as you experience any symptoms or if a current or former partner is diagnosed.

Priority STD Testing has thousands of nationwide centers that offer affordable, convenient and confidential STD testing. Do your part to reduce the spread of infections by getting tested and practicing safer sex with partners who have also been tested.

Communicate

One of the most important steps to ensuring better sexual health is maintaining an open line of communication with your partner(s) and primary care provider. While these conversations may be difficult to have at first, creating an open forum for discussions on sexuality, STD prevention and testing can help dissipate the social stigma and foster greater understanding. By getting tested regularly and conversing openly with your friends, partner(s) and doctor, you can educate yourself and others about safer sex. These discussions not only prioritize your health, but the health of others as well. 

Visit Your Campus Health Center 

Your campus health center can be a great resource for advice and treatment. College students should be unafraid to make use of their campus health centers. If any concerns should arise, the campus clinician is available for questions, diagnosis and advice. Many college campuses provide prophylactics to their students for free and are readily available for quick treatment. Your campus health center can also provide the necessary guidance and resources you need to protect your sexual health. This would include protection, medical advice and vaccinations. College students are typically required to get vaccinations before attending, making this a good time to get the HPV vaccine if you have not already.

From the provided evidence and statistics, we can infer with certainty that young people pursuing higher education are at an increased risk for contracting STDs and STIs. But, curiosity regarding one’s sexuality is to be expected and encouraged for any age group. By educating yourself, getting tested, making use of protective measures and utilizing the resources provided by your campus health center, you will be taking the necessary precautions to keep tabs on your sexual health, not only preventing STDs in college but also allowing yourself room for discovery and new experiences.