Am I at risk of contracting an STI?

Young woman in a white dress standing on grass with woods in the background

What’s the likelihood that I’ll get an STI while I’m in College?

We all like to think we’re invincible. Warnings are for other people: we ourselves are not at risk. However, 25% of college students have an STI. According to Live Science “50% of new infections occur in young people, ages 15-24, even though this age group represents only a quarter of people who have had sex.” That’s a huge number, and what it should tell us is that the “this doesn’t affect me” logic simply doesn’t apply.

Sometimes we make excuses to not worry about STIs because we want sex to be this easy, breezy fun thing that we do with no negative consequences. But if you’re sexually active now, or you plan to be in the future, taking an honest look at the facts is an important step to a healthier you.

What are the consequences of contracting an STI?

The first step to better sexual health is recognizing that your uterus—like the rest of your body—is not invincible. If you don’t treat them, infections like chlamydia and gonorrhea can lead to infertility and chronic pelvic pain.

Herpes and HPV can be treated but not cured. And both can cause long term health problems such as warts, certain types of cancers, recurrent outbreaks of sores, increased risk of other STIs, and potentially serious health problems in future children.

In other words, our sexual choices now can have long-term health consequences. So while making good decisions now may seem like you’re missing out on something, you’re really looking out for future you.

How can you reduce your risk?

According to the CDC, “the only way to avoid STIs is to not have vaginal, anal, or oral sex.”

Another highly effective option, says Mayo Clinic, is to be in a “mutually monogamous relationship with a partner who isn’t infected.”

These two routes are the only way to completely avoid infection. We know these may not be the most popular options, but there’s no avoiding science.

However, if these aren’t an option for you, consider these risk reduction methods:

  1. Fewer partners: Risk increases with the number of partners you have. Furthermore, risk increases with the number of partners your partner has had.
  2. Wait and verify: Wait to engage in sexual activity until you’ve both passed an STI test. It’s important to actually get tested, as some STIs lie dormant or don’t show symptoms in men. Some STIs spread through anal or oral sex, or by skin-to-skin contact. So waiting on those activities is important, too.

Mayo Clinic reminds us to “keep in mind that no good screening test exists for genital herpes for either sex, and human papillomavirus (HPV) screening isn’t available for men.” In other words, even if STI testing shows a healthy report, there is still some risk of infection.

  1. Use barriers like condoms or dental dams: When used correctly, barriers can reduce your risk of infection. They are less effective when exposed genital sores are involved, and skin-to-skin contact can still transmit some STIs.

Mayo Clinic has more risk-reduction tips on their website as well as information about STIs and STI testing. The bottom line is, if you’re sexually active, it is important to get tested regularly (even if you’re using risk reduction methods). With each new partner comes the possibility of new infection, and no risk reduction method is 100% reliable.

A healthier future depends on today’s choices. Envision the future you want for yourself: are the sexual choices you’re making now putting that future at risk? What sexual choices now will allow you to have the future you dream about?

Iris is the director of ArborWoman.