Testing for sexually transmitted infections is increasingly important for college students at Rice and across the nation. More STIs were diagnosed among teenagers and young adults in 2018 than in any prior year, according to the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention. With transmission rates higher than ever before, getting tested is the most effective course of action you can take to maintain both your and your partners’ sexual and holistic health.

Almost half of the 20 million new STIs transmitted each year affect 15- to 24-year-olds, and the CDC reports that one in two sexually active young people will contract an STI by the age of 25. With transmission rates on the rise, eliminating the stigma and engaging in conversations around STIs is more important now than ever.

Stigma, a lack of comprehensive information and the inaccessibility of reliable sexual healthcare services are all factors that can prevent young people from engaging in open dialogues about STIs and testing. Sex education in many parts of the U.S. often does not empower young people to make informed decisions about their sexual health and well-being. In Texas, nearly 60 percent of all school districts teach abstinence-only curricula, and 25 percent offer no sex education at all, according to the Texas Tribune. Additionally, discussion of STIs often includes value-laden, judgmental language like “clean” or “dirty,” while discussion of other infections like strep throat or the flu tends to use more neutral language. We advocate for using non-judgmental language to describe all infections, regardless of the mode of transmission, to encourage talking about sexual health as part of overall holistic health.

While people generally understand the importance of using barrier methods such as condoms or dental dams with oral, vaginal and anal sex to reduce the risk of transmitting infections, many don’t realize how often they should be getting tested. According to the CDC, testing is recommended at least once per year. If you’re sexually active with multiple partners (or have partners who are), using protection and getting tested between every partner is the best way to ensure you’re not a carrier.

Many people may not even realize they are carriers of an infection in the first place. STIs are frequently asymptomatic but can still be contagious. Since the most common symptom for many STIs is no symptoms at all, it can be easy for college students to underestimate their risk. Yet many people will experience an STI in their young adult life; getting tested should be a normal part of being sexually active. 

For all STIs, early detection and treatment is key. If untreated, STIs can have serious long-term impacts on both men’s and women’s health, such as infertility and chronic pelvic pain. Luckily, most STIs can be treated, and many can be completely cured with timely intervention. Bacterial infections, such as gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis, are completely curable with a course of antibiotics. Many viral and parasitic infections are curable and all are treatable. Treatments for HIV in particular have progressed enormously since the 1980s, when contracting the virus was considered a death sentence. Although no cure has been identified yet, with treatment, HIV-positive individuals can lead long, healthy and fulfilling lives. 

As college students, we have experienced firsthand how stigmatized and inaccessible STI testing can be. Even if you are open to being tested, finding safe and affordable testing can be difficult, especially if you want to be tested regularly. However, getting tested frequently can be an attainable and affordable process for everyone, both on Rice’s campus and in the greater Houston community.

Rice now provides reimbursement for comprehensive STI testing once a year through the Aetna student health plan, thanks to the Student Association’s current Student Health Services Committee and last spring’s Sexual Health Care Accessibility task force’s collaboration with the university administration. However, for students who do not have Aetna student insurance or who want to be tested more frequently, there are many affordable resources in the greater community. 

The Baylor Teen Clinic, less than a mile from campus, offers free comprehensive testing both for walk-ins and by appointment. Legacy Community Health Services offers free walk-in HIV and syphilis testing, and additional chlamydia and gonorrhea tests are available on a sliding scale fee. Planned Parenthood offers comprehensive free testing with Rice’s Aetna insurance, and they also accept a variety of other insurance plans. 

Attitudes and stigma around sex and STIs can sometimes make conversations with partners or health care providers feel difficult or uncomfortable. Misconceived notions and gaps in education can prevent healthy dialogues about sex. But promoting open conversations about sex and STIs is both empowering and essential. Getting tested is one of the most important ways to take control over your sexual health and keep you and your partners healthy and informed.