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Heading off to university is a pivotal time in your life. It’s filled with nerves, excitement and plenty of new experiences looming on the horizon. Freshers’ week – and its accompanying bar crawls and drinking games – is a priority on most students’ to-do lists. But how clued up are first years when it comes to staying infection-free during the haze of the week?

According to a survey carried out in 2013 by a leading student dating site, almost one-quarter of university goers contracted a sexually transmitted infection (STI) during their first year of study. Worryingly, 89% admitted they didn’t use a condom during the majority of their sexual encounters, while 73% said they mainly had sex when drunk. More than half confessed that they were unsure who they’d caught an infection from.

It’s important that new students go into university life armed with the knowledge they need to keep safe. A report published by Public Health England in 2015 found that there were 439,243 cases of STIs in 2014 and that young people under the age of 25 are more at risk of contracting infections. It also found that young heterosexual people between the ages of 16 and 24 accounted for 63% of chlamydia cases, 55% of gonorrhoea cases and 52% of genital warts cases.

As another generation prepares for freshers’ week, we’ve taken a look at the three most common STIs, what to expect from them, and – most importantly – how to avoid them.

Be prepared, protect yourself

Young people are at great risk from STIs, particularly during party week as safe sex isn’t always a priority following a booze-fuelled night out. The symptoms of chlamydia, gonorrhoea and genital warts are not always obvious, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself – knowing the facts is one of them.

Chlamydia
The most common STI in young people, chlamydia is often without symptoms. However, if left untreated, the bacterial infection can cause fertility problems in both men and women. It’s for this reason that testing is so important and is the only way to be sure you don’t have it. You can easily check your sexual health by using a chlamydia home testing kit. You can get this STI from oral, vaginal or anal sex. If symptoms are present, women may experience a change in vaginal discharge, lower abdomen pain and bleeding or pain during sex. The most common symptoms in men include pain during urination and a cloudy or watery discharge from the penis. Chlamydia treatment usually takes the form of oral antibiotics such as azithromycin, which, if taken correctly, will cure more than 95% of people affected.

Gonorrhoea
This STI is caused by bacteria known as Neisseria gonorrhoeae, or gonococcus, that is found in vaginal fluid and discharge from the penis. It usually takes 10 days for the symptoms of gonorrhoea to become apparent – pain when urinating, bleeding between periods and lower abdomen pain are common in women. Men should be on the lookout for a thick green or yellow discharge from the penis, inflamed foreskin and testicularle pain. However, one in 10 infected men and nearly half of women won’t experience any symptoms. You can easily check for this infection by using a gonorrhoea home testing kit. Treatment will usually involve an injected antibiotic called ceftriaxone 500mg, which will need to be administered by a doctor or nurse, or antibiotics such as cefixime.

Genital warts
These small growths or bumps on or around the genital and anal area come about as a result of a skin infection caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). While usually painless, these growths are unsightly and can cause worry and distress, so it’s always best to get them checked out. HPV symptoms may even manifest in clusters of warts that give a cauliflower-like appearance. This infection differs from the others in that penetrative sex isn’t always needed to pass it on – it can also be spread through skin-to-skin genital contact and sharing sex toys. For the treatment of genital warts, doctors may recommend topical medicine, such as warticon or condyline, while harder warts may need freezing or heating to remove them.

Enjoy being a fresher
Have confidence in truly safe sex this freshers’ week by ensuring you use a condom every single time. Don’t rely on your partner to provide it either – always carry one yourself so that you know you’re prepared.

However, if you do end up taking a risk with your sexual health, try not to panic. It’s important that you get tested as soon as possible after unprotected sex. That way, if you do test positive for an STI, you can begin treatment immediately for a chance to eliminate any long-term issues. You can take one of the Pharmacy2u STD home tests, while our online doctor service offers convenient and confidential consultations with GMC-registered GPs. Once your details have been reviewed, the appropriate prescription can be arranged for you.

How long you wait to have sex again after being treated for an STI will depend on the infection and treatment. Always follow the expert advice of your doctor.

As long as you’re sensible, carry protection and don’t take chances with your sexual health, freshers’ week will be an enjoyable time in which you’ll make life-long friends and create many happy memories.