The term “sexually transmitted infection” (STI) has slowly been replacing the term “sexually transmitted disease” (STD), but the first more accurately reflects what is going on in the body of an infected individual a bit convoluted. According to the American Social Health Association, the term sexually transmitted disease “implies a clear medical problem, usually (with) some obvious signs or symptoms.” The term sexually transmitted infection points to a scary reality: that many of the most common STDs are asymptomatic and are, therefore, difficult to detect.
According to the Health Services Department at the University Of New Hampshire, the three most common STIs on college campuses are the human papilloma virus (HPV), chlamydia and herpes.
HPV is a collection of approximately 150 related viruses, about 40 of which are passed sexually. According to the American Cancer Society, at least one-half of the people who have ever had sex will have HPV at some time in their life.
HPV is most common in young women between their late teens and early 20s. Low risk strains of HPV symptoms can manifest themselves as genital warts, and high risk strains can lead to cervical cancer.
There are several ways women can lower their chances of developing HPV, including two vaccines: Cervarix and Gardasil, which guard against HPV strains that cause cervical cancer, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP).. Gardasil also protects against most HPV strains that cause genital warts.
“Given the ubiquity of HPV in sexually active individuals and the alarming recent news of increased incidence of head and neck cancers (in the throat) in which HPV is found, vaccination seems like at least one way of protecting oneself. The vaccine can be given up through age 25,” said Dr. Elizabeth Thomas, who practices at the Mills College Health Center.
Condom use and limiting the number of sexual partners one has also reduce the chances of contracting an STI. Dr. Thomas cautions against using condoms alone, however.
“Use of condoms does not protect you completely, as the virus can infect all genital skin, not just the cervix,” Dr. Thomas said.
Chlamydia is caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. According to the Health Services Department at the University Of New Hampshire, 75 percent of women and 50 percent of men who have chlamydia show no symptoms. Contraction occurs through vaginal, anal or oral sex with an infected person. When symptoms do appear, it usually shows within one to three weeks after contact.
Early symptoms of chlamydia may include a burning sensation upon urination and abnormal vaginal discharge. In women, the bacteria first infects the cervix and urethra. If left untreated, the bacteria slowly makes its way to the fallopian tubes, which explains why the disease can lead to problems with fertility. According to the CDCP, this STI is easy to cure by antibiotics if it’scaught early. The CDCP recommends women under 25 get tested every year.
There are two forms of viruses that cause herpes: Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 (HSV-1) and Herpes Simplex Virus Type 2 (HSV-2) HSV-1 is most often associated with oral herpes, while HSV-2 is most often associated with genital herpes.
According to CDCP, about one-fifth of American teenagers and adults have genital herpes and most do not know it. By comparison, experts estimate 50 percent to 80 percent of adults have oral herpes.
Oral herpes can be passed through kissing, and symptoms include cold sores and fever blisters on the lips and in mouth.
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“I just felt like I had to bite my lip and scratch it and all of a sudden I felt a bump forming. It was there for about 10 days, which felt (like) forever,” said a student who contracted HSV-I from her partner a few months ago and wished to remain anonymous.
Genital herpes is transmitted through vaginal, anal or oral sex. Most infected people display no symptoms. According to CDCP, if symptoms are present, they are clusters of blistery sores around the anus, vagina, vulva, cervix, penis or buttocks. Genital herpes is most infectious when the sores are present and open. However, the virus can be transmitted even without symptoms. A condom can be used to create a barrier between fluid exchanges with the infected person, but condoms can break.
The best way to be on the safe side of STI prevention is abstinence, according to Dr. Thomas. If sexually active, make sure to use condoms, but be cautious because they are not 100 percent effective. Also, Thomas said it is important to your health as well as others in your life to get checked for STI’s at least once a year.
“Get screened!” she said. “It’s so easy.”
Mills students have access to the Community Health Resource Center, where they can talk to health care professionals like Dr. Elizabeth Thomas and get guidance on how to get tested.
You can book an appointment online or on the phone at (877) 645-5757.
Health Matters is a column written by the second-year nursing students participating in the Nursing Leadership Class.