I. Why Are College Students at Risk for STDs?

Young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 are more at risk than any other population of contracting STDs. This increased risk is largely because college students more frequently engage in common behaviors, such as having unprotected sex and multiple partners, that can put them at risk for contracting STDs. Young women’s bodies are also more prone to STDs. Since most young adults don’t get the recommended STD tests or feel comfortable talking openly with doctors about their sex lives, these diseases can go undiagnosed and untreated.

With nearly half of the 18 to 24 year-olds in the U.S. enrolled in undergraduate or graduate school, college campuses can be breeding ground for STDs, putting students at even greater risk. Campuses also tend to be a conglomeration of people from all walks of life.

Community college students may be at even greater risk because they tend to include younger, more diverse, and mobile student populations. These students may also come from communities with higher STD risk factors to begin with. Studies have also found two-year students are more likely not to use a condom and have had more than one sexual partner than four-year students.

Unique STD risks for college students

There are certain behaviors that put college students at greater risk of STDs. For instance, if you have sex without a condom – even if it’s anal or oral – you are at a higher risk of contracting an STD. Likewise, if you binge drink or have sex while drinking or doing drugs, your chances of getting an STD increase.

Risky behaviors that can increase your risk of contracting an STD include:

  • Having more than one sexual partner in the past year
  • Having sex with a nonmonogamous partner
  • Having anonymous partners
  • Not using a condom
  • Binge drinking
  • Drug use

Being less willing to talk openly with a healthcare professional about your sex life can exacerbate the issue by delaying diagnosis and treatment. Since many STDs don’t have symptoms you would notice, it’s entirely possible for you to have a disease and not know it. Likewise, there is no way to know if your partner has an STD unless he or she has been tested.

There are certain circumstances that may complicate testing and treatment for STDs, such as:

  • Being unwilling to talk openly about your sex life with your doctor
  • Not having health insurance that covers STD testing
  • Not having transportation to a health clinic where STD is provided

II. How Common Are STDs in College?

STDs are at an all-time high, according to the latest research by the CDC. There were more than 2.5 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Studies have found that one in four sexually active adolescent girls has an STD, with chlamydia being the most common. Here are some statistics about specific STDs among young adults:

Chlamydia

  • Chlamydia is the most commonly transmitted bacterial STD in the U.S.
  • There were an estimated 4 million new chlamydia infections in the U.S. in 2018. However, since most people with chlamydia are asymptomatic and don’t seek testing, there are likely many more cases that are not reported
  • Young adults between 15 and 24 represent two-thirds of new chlamydia infections.
  • Around one in every 20 sexually active young women between age 14 and 24 has chlamydia.
  • In 2019, chlamydia rates were six times higher for African Americans/blacks than for whites.

Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)

  • Bacterial vaginosis, which occurs when there is too much bacteria in the vagina, is the most common vaginal condition among women between the ages of 15 and 44.
  • The CDC estimates that 21.2 million women between the ages of 14 and 29 have BV.
  • Around 84% of women with BV have no symptoms.
  • Almost 19% of women who have not had sex and 25% of women who are pregnant can be affected by BV.
  • BV is more common among non-white women, with African-American women the most at-risk population at 51%, followed by Mexican Americans at 32%, compared to 23% of white women.

Genital Herpes

  • The CDC estimates there are around 572,000 new genital herpes, which is caused by the herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) or type 2 (HSV-2), infections in the U.S. each year.
  • Around 12% of young adults over the age of 14 have HSV-2.
  • HSV-2 is more common among women, with 15.9% of women between age 14 and 49 having the virus compared to 8.2% of men in the same age range.
  • More non-Hispanic blacks at 34.6% are considerably more likely to have HSV-2 than non-Hispanic whites at 8.1%.
  • It’s estimated that 87.4% of the cases of HSV-2 among 14 to 49-year-olds are undiagnosed.

Gonorrhea

  • Gonorrhea, which can infect both men and women, is especially common among young adults aged 15 to 24 years of age.
  • Gonorrhea is the second most commonly reported bacterial STD in the U.S.
  • Of the around 1.6 million new gonococcal infections that occurred in the U.S. in 2018, the CDC estimates that more than half were among young adults aged 15 to 24.
  • Pregnant women who have gonorrhea can give the disease to their babies during childbirth.
  • Sexually active teenagers, young adults, and African Americans are the most at-risk populations.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

  • HPV is the most common STD in the U.S.
  • Of the approximately 43 million HPV infections in 2018, many were among young adults in their late teens and early 20s.
  • There are approximately 79 million people with HPV in the U.S., with around 14 million new cases each year.
  • Around 80% of sexually active men and women get HPV at some point in their lives.

Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID)

  • Around 8.8% of sexually active women age 18 and older have reported getting PID.
  • Roughly 2.5 million women in the U.S. have been diagnosed with PID.
  • PID is the most common among young women between the ages of 15 and 24.
  • Studies suggest women with PID are more likely to have an ectopic pregnancy, tubal factor infertility, and chronic pelvic pain.
  • Women under the age of 25 who have had sex are at an increased risk of getting PID.

Syphilis

  • There were over 129,800 new diagnoses of syphilis reported in the U.S. in 2019.
  • Most syphilis cases occur among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men.
  • Men who have sex only with men have the highest occurrence of syphilis, at over 41%.
  • There were over 24,000 new cases of syphilis in 2015.

Trichomoniasis

  • CDC estimates indicate there were more than 2 million trichomoniasis infections in 2018.
  • Trichomoniasis is more common among women than men.
  • Pregnant women with trichomoniasis are more likely to have premature delivery and babies with a low birth rate.
  • Around 2.1% of young women over the age of 14 have trichomoniasis, compared to 0.5% of young men.
  • African American women (9.6%) are more likely to have the infection than Hispanic (1.4%) or white women (0.8%).
  • Factors that increase the risk for young women are being younger when you have sex for the first time, have a higher number of sexual partners and a history of chlamydia in the past 12 months.

III. How to Prevent STDs in College

Even though college students are at higher risk of getting an STD, there are many ways to reduce or eliminate your risk of contracting an STD. Of course, the most sure-fire way to avoid an STD is abstinence, meaning not having any vaginal, oral, or anal sex. While condoms and other safe sex practices can reduce your risk of getting an STD, they are not 100% effective as some STDs can spread merely by skin-to-skin contact. That said, there are ways to protect yourself while being sexually active:

  • Practice safe sex: You should use a condom from start to finish anytime you have sex, whether it’s vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Make sure you and your partner know how to use condoms correctly before having sex. If you or your partner has a latex allergy, you can use synthetic non-latex condoms, but you should note that these types of condoms have higher breakage rates than latex ones. The CDC does not recommend the usage of natural membrane condoms for preventing STDs. Dental dams, which are thin pieces of latex placed over the vulva or anus during sex, can also help reduce STD transmission.
  • Communicate openly: You and your partner should talk about how you’ll prevent STDs and pregnancy before having sex. Ask your partner about the number, types, and timing of his or her previous sexual encounters, whether he or she practiced safe sex, and if he or she has been tested for STDs. This is also a good opportunity to discuss what you are and are not comfortable doing during sex.
  • Be monogamous: Both you and your partner should agree to be in a monogamous sexual relationship, meaning you have sex only with each other.
  • Reduce your number of sex partners: Along with only having sex with one person at a time, reducing your number of sex partners throughout your life can also reduce your risk of contracting an STD.
  • Get tested regularly: Since some STDs don’t have any visible symptoms, regular testing is important to make sure you and your partner don’t have an STD. Girls and young women should also get regular cervical cancer screenings and chlamydia and gonorrhea testing.
  • Get vaccinated against HPV: HPV vaccines are safe and effective. The CDC recommends vaccinations at age 11 or 12, or as early as age 9 years, and for everyone through age 26 years who is not vaccinated already.
  • Consult health care provider: You should speak with a health care professional about any STD concerns you have, such as getting tested or vaccinated. You can also discuss birth control options with your provider.
  • Utilize on-campus resources: Your college campus likely has health resources to help you reduce your risk of getting an STD. For instance, you may have access to free or low-cost college STD testing either on-campus or through a referral to a local health agency.
  • Don’t have sex under the influence: You should avoid having sex after drinking or doing drugs. You are more likely to take risks that can increase your chances of an STD, such as not using a condom or having sex with an unfamiliar partner, while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Choose less risky sexual activities: Some sexual activities are less likely to transmit STDs. For instance, dry humping, masturbation, and cuddling are all safer activities than vaginal, anal, or oral sex.

IV. College STD Testing

Not all STDs have visible symptoms. It’s possible for someone to have an STD and not know it, making it even harder to prevent STD transmission. The only way to know for sure that you don’t have an STD is to get tested. STD testing is also key to catching a disease early and avoiding accidentally spreading it to your partners. Undiagnosed and untreated, some STDs can also cause other health issues, such as difficulty getting pregnant later in life and increasing your chances of getting HIV, which can be fatal if untreated.

Your healthcare provider can help you determine which STD tests you should get, but in general, college students who are sexually active under the age of 25 should get the following tests:

  • Chlamydia: Sexually active women under age 25, sexually active men under age 25 in areas with a high rate of chlamydia, and men age 13 and over who have sex with other men should be tested each year.
  • Gonorrhea: Sexually active women under age 25 and men age 13 and over who have sex with other men should be tested each year.
  • Syphilis: Men age 13 and over who have sex with other men should be tested each year.
  • HIV: Men age 13 and over who have sex with other men, people with a partner who has HIV and those who inject drugs should be tested at least annually. Others should get tested at the recommendation of a healthcare provider.
  • Pregnant women: Pregnant women should be tested for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV during their first prenatal visit. Pregnant women who test positive, are considered at high risk, or live in areas with a lot of syphilis cases should also be retested for syphilis in the third trimester. Women considered at high risk for HIV should also get retested in the third trimester.

You can get college STD testing from your healthcare provider. Some outreach events and campuses may also offer testing, or provide resources for local testing sites. The CDC’s Testing Locator also provides free or low-cost testing sites near you.

When to get tested

STD Where you can test How often to test
Chlamydia
  • Campus clinic
  • Local clinic
  • Health care provider
  • At-home testing kit
Annually
Gonorrhea
  • Campus clinic
  • Local clinic
  • Health care provider
  • At-home testing kit
Annually
Syphilis
  • Campus clinic
  • Local clinic
  • Health care provider
  • At-home testing kit
Annually
HIV
  • Campus clinic
  • Local clinic
  • Health care provider
  • At-home testing kit
At least annually

Where to get tested

There are several places you can get tested for an STD, including:

  • Local clinics: You can find STD testing centers near you at Testing.com.
  • Get tested on campus: Many campuses offer college STD testing. These can include self-directed STD tests where you order the test online or in-clinic tests at your campus health center.
  • Health care providers: Your general practitioner primary care physician or OB/GYN can administer STD tests.
  • At-home tests: STD tests can be ordered online and taken at home for many types of STDs. Costs vary from less than $20 to $500.

Privacy concerns

One thing that can stop many college students from getting STD testing or adequate health care is a fear that their parents, family members, or friends will learn about their sexual activity. Studies have found that among students who forgo necessary health care, 33% do so because they didn’t want their parents to know.

It’s natural to feel this way, but there’s no need to worry. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule protects adolescent’s confidentiality. Under the law, a minor is afforded the same privacy rights as an adult if the minor consents to treatment, such as for an STD, under a state minor law. In this case, your parents would not be able to access your health information related to the situation unless you give consent.

The HIPAA Privacy Rule also lets you request health care providers communicate with you confidentially, such as by sending information to your personal email or somewhere other than your home.

If you still have concerns about your privacy through a clinic, at-home STD testing may be a reassuring option. You can order a kit online, provide the necessary sample – be it urine, blood, or both – and mail it back to the laboratory for testing. Results are typically provided via phone or email or published anonymously online.

V. Resources for College STD Prevention and Testing

Here are more resources for information on preventing STDs and college STD testing:

VI. Learn More From Our Sources