*In an interview with Fresh U, the individual requested that her identity and the identity of others involved remain anonymous. Therefore, all names have been changed in order to protect their privacy.
Kathleen* was 18 and a freshman in college when she started dating Jake*, a senior at her university. Too busy having fun and enjoying her first taste of freedom, she did not realize that her new boyfriend was not with her for the right reasons.
When she began experiencing symptoms in the late fall, Kathleen first thought she was suffering from a yeast infection or urinary tract infection (UTI). She avoided going to the campus doctor at first, but by winter, Kathleen’s symptoms had become so bad she was missing class, bedridden by abdominal pain.
Kathleen is just one of many American students who faced the pain and confusion that occurs when one becomes infected with a sexual transmitted infection. According to Everyday Health, a report by Stanford University’s Sexual Health Peer Resource Center estimated that “one in four college students has a sexually transmitted disease.”
Statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) note that despite people between the ages of 15 and 24 representing only a quarter of the sexually active population, they account for more than 50 percent of the new STI diagnoses every year. The National College Health Assessment Survey found that a little more than half of college students use condoms consistently and that less than 5 percent do so during oral intercourse, also according to Everyday Health.
Most people also do not know that the phrase "STI" is starting to replace the term "STD" to describe the set of diseases traditionally referred to as sexually transmitted diseases. According to Brown University, the word "infection" better describes the conditions that are typically transmitted sexually as it is better understood now that these often show no, or very little, symptoms and are typically very treatable. The word "disease" seems to imply an unnecessary incurability and severity that has undoubtedly contributed to the stigma that has historically surrounded conditions like herpes, gonorrhea and syphilis.
Perhaps many American school’s lack of any uniform sexual education program is to blame for college students glaring lack of knowledge about sexual health and STIs. Check out this terrifying, but informative report by the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that works to advance sexual and reproductive health, to see just how behind most U.S. states are in terms of their sexual health education. Also, here are a few lessons to remember so that you know what to do in case you are ever put in Kathleen’s shoes.
Lesson #1: Just go to the doctor's.
While today, Kathleen says she and her friends often accompany one another to their campus’ Women’s Health Center, talking to friends about personal subjects like your health can be difficult in the beginning months of college when everyone is just getting to know each other.
“It can be scary to go to the doctors by yourself for the first time,” she said, “It can be a lot less intimidating if you have a friend go with you.”
Kathleen could have avoided a lot of her health problems by seeking treatment earlier, but she waited until her symptoms became serious.
When she finally went to the campus doctor, she was told she had gonorrhea, a very common and very treatable STI. Although the stigma surrounding sexually transmitted conditions made it difficult for Kathleen to go to the campus health center at first, the contents of her appointment and test results were completely confidential, as they always will be.
Looking back, Kathleen knows she should have gone to the doctor sooner. After being prescribed antibiotics, her infection was cleared in two weeks and she was back to her usual activities.
Lesson #2: Forget about the cost.
“Just go,” Kathleen said about visiting the campus health center if you think you are sick. “Don’t worry about copays because they’re usually inexpensive and you can find a way to pay later.”
Nearly all schools require you to have some form of health insurance. Most likely, your treatment at your school’s campus health center will be free, or at least relatively cheap. Do not forget that missing one day of work to go to the doctor's office and get the right prescription is a lot better than missing a week of work when you become really sick later.
Lesson #3: Make the calls.
One of the first things you should do is notify anyone who could have contracted the infection. It can be a very difficult conversation to have, but when you find out you have an STI, you have a responsibility to tell anyone and everyone who might also be at risk. You just gotta do it.
Chances are the person who gave it to you did not know they had it, as many STIs simply go unnoticed. But imagine if the person who gave it to your partner could have warned them in time for them to get treated and save you from ever contracting it. It is your responsibility to do what you can to stop it from spreading.
Lesson #4: Don’t worry about the haters.
Do not be disheartened if you receive a negative reaction when you tell someone about your STI. Despite Jake being the only one Kathleen had relations with her freshman year, he accused her of cheating and said the infection couldn’t have possibly come from him.
“How a person reacts to that type of news says a lot about them,” Kathleen said. She explained that she was really hurt by Jake’s reaction at first, but now realizes his denial is only a reflection on him.
“If a person is willing to stand by you through that, especially when it didn’t come from them, and cares genuinely about your well-being during that time — because (STIs) can be really painful — it shows they have good character,” she added.
Lesson #5: Know your infections, but don’t WebMD it.
STIs can be contracted in a multitude of ways, including but not limited to sexual intercourse, oral sex and kissing. STIs could even be acquired by sharing a towel with a person who has one.
Brown University’s Health Promotion service offers really good information on different infections, including STIs, yeast infections and urinary tract infections, as well as information on other aspects of sexual health.
It is important to know the difference between STIs and other common infections because it is possible for individuals, like Kathleen, to confuse their STI for a UTI before it becomes worse. WebMD can seem like a great resource, Kathleen warned, but you’ll most likely just terrify yourself.
“Leave healthcare to the professionals,” Kathleen said. “The most important thing is to be in tune with your own body and just go to the doctor, if you think there might be a problem.”
Lead Image Credit: Columbia Pictures
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