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Know Your Enemy

medical serif;”>Silvana Lakeman looks at the disturbing figures behind STDs

salve serif;”>If you were to look around UCD, you would probably quickly notice the couples holding hands, the quick and the long kisses, the aggregations of girls gossiping about last night’s scandal at Coppers, and the absence of that friend who was too hung over from last night to make it in for their 3:00pm lecture. Ah, young love! It blooms in Belfield.

Unfortunately, one of life’s truths is that if we enjoy too much of a good thing, it’s not so good anymore, and can in fact make us sick. Just like going through a family size block of chocolate in half an hour may seem like the best decision at the time, we will inevitably feel the consequences. While sex can’t give you a tummy ache, it can give you far worse health issues if you don’t know who you’re sharing a bed with, you don’t use protection and you don’t know yourself whether you are clear of any nasty infections. While most of us no doubt had the charming experience of sitting through a class or two about sexual health in secondary school, perhaps if we’d been told just how prevalent STD’s are in Ireland, not just general mumbo-jumbo about protection and prevention, we’d be a little more prepared now to take charge of our sexual health in university.

Over one million people in the world are infected with an STD every day – yet the scary part is, only half are aware that they are infected. Last year in Dublin, let alone Ireland, three thousand people were diagnosed with some form of STD, yet this number only comes from those who bothered to get checked and have a screening. We as college students are not exactly known for looking after ourselves – too often our health is compromised in order to ‘live college life to its fullest,’ however maybe if we were to take a little more care we might be able to alter the statistics, which are shockingly higher amongst college students than any other demographic. For example, twenty-five percent of teen girls are living with an STD. If you are having sex, you would ideally be screened for any STD by your doctor every time you change sexual partners, and otherwise once a year.

The most common forms of infection are bacterial vaginosis, Chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, trichomoniasis and human papillomavirus. For those who spend more time in Newman than the Human Sciences building, you may know human papillomavirus, the most common form of sexually transmitted infection, by its other name – genital warts. It will affect at least fifty percent of sexually active individuals at some point in their lives. Luckily this infection is one that tends to clear up on its own – in fact you may not even be aware you ever had the virus – however as there are over one hundred types of HPV, a few strains cause far more serious problems, such as various types of cancers. Those that cause cancers show no obvious symptoms, making them far more dangerous, however it is good to know that if you find yourself with genital warts, there are many treatments available from your doctor.

Trichomoniasis unfortunately does not go by a more identifiable name, however it is the most commonly treatable STD today. As with most STD’s, if you are male you are in a way far more at risk, as STD’s, far more often in men than in women, show no symptoms. Chlamydia, a fairly serious infection, it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility, yet it is both treatable and preventable. Gonorrhea is similar to Chlamydia, except it also can lead to infertility in males if left untreated. Of the six most commonly identified infections stated here, herpes is the only untreatable disease, and causes occasional outbreaks of sores and blisters, during which it is highly recommended to abstain from sex in order to prevent further spreading to sexual partners. Most of the time, however, herpes shows no symptoms.

While we may tend to think the most serious STD’s are not of much concern to us here in Ireland, in 2009 there were 2.2 million people living in Europe with HIV. While far less common, diseases such as HIV/AIDs and syphilis, which can cause blood infection, nervous system and brain damage and death (as can potentially almost all STD’s) are not non-existent in Europe and in Ireland. Whilst these far more serious and far rarer diseases will most likely not affect us, is it always better to be safe than sorry. Which leads us to prevention.

Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant, and die.’ Those were the immortal words spoken by Coach Carr in the film Mean Girls. Coach Carr may have been a little dramatic in his wording. If adequate protection is used, and both you and your partner are clean of any infections, there is no reason you should die if you have sex, and getting pregnant shouldn’t be an issue. The most common forms of protection include a condom, the pill, implantable rods, vaginal rings, a patch or a shot injection, yet the condom is the only effective preventative measure against STD’s as well as pregnancy. It is important to note that no matter what measures are taken, no form of contraception is one hundred percent affective against STD’s. While abstaining from having sex is the obvious way to completely prevent pregnancy, STD’s can be spread from open wounds and cuts, bodily fluids, touching and kissing as well as oral and penetrative sex, so it is in your best interest to get yourself checked out regularly.

It is up to you as to when, how often or where you get yourself checked for infections, however if you are having sex, it is in your best interest to do so. If you are swapping partners often, get checked out every few months, otherwise every time you sleep with a new partner, or once a year if with one person. When going to get screened, your doctor will ask questions regarding your sexual history, and in the interest of your own health it’s important to not skip over any details. They may ask if you are experiencing any unusual symptoms, otherwise the screening may involve swab and blood tests, and otherwise a manual examination. It is important to remember that a few minutes of feeling a bit uncomfortable in the doctor’s room may save you from things far worse down the line.

Besides getting tested occasionally, there are ways to decrease your chances of picking up something nasty, such as knowing who you’re having sex with. It seems so simple, but unless you are sure your partner is clear of any infections, you cannot be sure you have not been infected. Therefore it does not hurt to ask if they have been tested lately. Unfortunately, alcohol tends to increase the chances of sleeping with someone you do not know, and increases your chances of neglecting to use protection such as a condom. However your sexual health is in your hands, so it is important to do whatever you need to do to keep yourself healthy and STD free. There is no reason why you should not enjoy your time in college, just like there is no reason why something like an STD should ruin it. Use protection, know who you’re sleeping with, get yourself tested regularly, and you won’t have to worry about being another statistic.

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