As well as unpleasant symptoms, STIs have consequences. Even those without obvious symptoms may cause infertility and other long-term health damage.
According to the Health Protection Agency, more than a third of the 400,000 new cases of STIs reported in the UK in 2008 were in young people aged 16 to 24.
Whether you’re single or in a new relationship, the message is clear: if you’re sexually active, the best way to reduce the likelihood of getting an STI is always to use a condom.
Chlamydia is the most common STI among young people (genital warts is the second most common). It often has no symptoms and, if left untreated, can lead to infertility for both men and women.
You can only be sure you don't have chlamydia by taking a test. Male and female students under the age of 25 can get tested for chlamydia free on the NHS at various places including their GP, a community contraceptive clinic (family planning clinic), a genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinic and some pharmacies.
If the test is positive, chlamydia is easily treated with antibiotics, which are free from the places listed above.
There is also an oral antibiotic available without a prescription from pharmacies to treat chlamydia. The azithromycin pill (Clamelle) is available to over-16s who test positive for the infection and have no symptoms, and for their sexual partners. You will have to pay for this treatment.
To find out more, call the National Chlamydia Screening Programme helpline on National Chlamydia Screening Programme website.
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Other common infections
Other common STIs among students include genital warts, genital herpes and gonorrhoea. HIV infection is less common but does happen in young people. In 2009, under-25s made up 11% of all new cases in the UK.
Most of these infections can be prevented by using condoms. Choose ones that carry the British Kitemark or European CE mark, which are recognised quality standards.
"Some people think that if they test negative for chlamydia, they’re OK," says Dr Alyson Elliman, spokesperson for the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
"But be aware that other STIs, such as gonorrhoea, can be symptomless too. Ideally, you should combine safe sex with regular sexual health check-ups, especially in the early stages of a new relationship."
Contraception and contraceptive advice is free for students in the UK. With 15 methods of contraception to choose from, there should be one that’s right for you. If you choose one that fits with your lifestyle, you’ll be more likely to use it properly and it will be more effective.
Long-acting, reversible contraceptives, such as injections, the implant (also called Implanon), IUD (intrauterine device, sometimes known as a coil) and Mirena IUS (intrauterine system, or hormone-releasing coil) could be a good choice for female students, according to Dr Elliman.
"They’re the most effective types of contraception and they work for months or years at a time without you needing to remember to take a pill every day," she says.
If you use a continuous method of contraception for birth control, combine it with using a condom to prevent STIs with new partners. You can get contraception for free from:
- any GP
- community contraceptive clinics
- some GUM clinics
- sexual health clinics (these offer contraceptive and STI testing services)
- Brook advisory centres (for under-25s)
This is contraception you can use to reduce the possibility of pregnancy when you've had unprotected sex or when you think your usual method might not have worked. There are two types of emergency contraception:
- the emergency contraceptive pill (sometimes called the morning-after pill)
- the emergency IUD
The pill needs to be taken as soon as possible after unprotected sex. It works best within the first 24 hours, but it is licensed for use up to 72 hours afterwards and still has an effect for up to 120 hours.
You can get the emergency pill free from the sources of free contraception listed above. In addition, some accident and emergency units provide the emergency contraception pill for free. Women can buy the emergency pill from most pharmacies. It costs around £26.
The IUD may prevent an egg being fertilised or implanted in your uterus. It needs to be inserted by a specially trained doctor or nurse within five days of sex, but could be inserted later depending on your menstrual cycle. If you think you’ve left it too late, it’s still worth discussing the options with a doctor or nurse.
Most community contraceptive clinics and GP surgeries will have at least one doctor or nurse who is able to fit an emergency IUD. It’s a good idea to telephone first to check. You can also use the IUD as an ongoing contraceptive method.
It’s common to feel shock and panic when facing an unplanned pregnancy. Professionals are on hand to give information and support. The three choices are to keep the baby, have an abortion, or have the baby and have it adopted or fostered.
It can be a difficult and complicated decision and it may help to talk to someone. You can get impartial advice from your GP, a community contraception clinic, Brook advisory centre or other young person’s service.
To get an abortion free on the NHS, you will need to be referred by a doctor. This can be your own GP, or a doctor at a local community contraception clinic, sexual health clinic or Brook advisory centre.
Read more about abortion.