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College students and the risk of STD's
Sep 3, 1998

Now that I'm in college..there is a lot more sexual pressure than where i'm from. Is there an increasing number of college students who contract STD's? Why is this so? Does the environment influence risky behavior? Should college kids be extra cautious?

Response from Mr. Sowadsky

Thank you for your question. Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) among college students is not uncommon. In fact, when we look at STD statistics, the highest rates of STDs are found in adolescents (ages 10-19) and young adults (ages 20-24). There are many factors that lead to a higher rate of STDs in these age groups. For example, adolescents and young adults are more likely to have more sexual partners than people ages 25 and above. In addition they tend to have shorter relationships (multiple short-term relationships rather than a long-term relationship). They are also less likely to use condoms, and less likely to perceive themselves at risk of infection.

Most HIV and STD educational programs are taught at the high school level. Very few are taught at the college level. Many of these programs discuss HIV and STDs primarily from an informational or clinical point of view (transmission, symptoms, etc.). Unfortunately, many of these programs do not discuss behavioral risk reduction issues like condom negotiation skills, and ways to talk to a potential sexual partner about HIV/STDs. In addition, many of these programs teach about HIV and STDs from a strictly heterosexual point of view, which many Gay and Lesbian students often cannot relate to. A key issue regarding condom use among adolescents and young adults, is the inability for students to ask their partner to use a condom, even if they know there is a potential risk of infection. One study showed that college students often did not discuss condom usage; but if the topic was brought up, they often agreed to the use of condoms. Some students consent to having sex simply because they feel awkward in refusing to have sex (due to peer pressure, low self-esteem, fear of rejection, etc.). So although many students are knowledgeable in the clinical aspects of HIV and STDs (transmission, symptoms, etc.), they often cannot apply that information to personal risk reduction skills and behaviors.

High school and college students are often at increased risk for HIV and other STDs, especially as it relates to alcohol use. It is common for students to have sex while under the influence of alcohol. High school and college students generally have no difficulty in gaining access to alcohol, despite the fact that the age to legally purchase alcohol is 21 in most or all places. When people are under the influence of alcohol and other drugs, they tend to put themselves at a greater risk of infection. While under the influence of these drugs, they are more likely to have sex with people they normally would not have sex with. They are also less likely to use condoms, or less likely to use them correctly. There is a lot of peer pressure to drink alcohol among high school and college students. For college students living away from home, the use of alcohol may increase, since there is usually no direct parental oversight or supervision. The high rate of alcohol use is a significant factor in the high rate of STDs among adolescents and young adults.

Condoms are often not used if a couple is in a mutually monogamous relationship. However one study found that many college students lied about their faithfulness to their partner, and actually had other sexual partners outside of their relationship.

Among heterosexual students, many couples do not use condoms if the female partner is taking birth control pills or other forms of birth control. There seems to be a greater concern about unwanted pregnancies than about HIV/STDs.

In summary, both high school and college students are at increased risk of infection, primarily as it relates to alcohol use, poor risk reduction skills, and a perceived lack of risk for HIV and other STDs. Abstaining from sex, or always practicing safer sex, will significantly reduce the risk for these diseases. In addition, abstaining from alcohol or other drugs, or avoiding getting drunk or high on drugs, will significantly reduce the risk of HIV and other STDs as well.

If you have any further questions, please feel free to call the Centers for Disease Control at 1.800.232.4636 (Nationwide).



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