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Young Women Underestimate STD Risk

Heavy Drinking Increases Women's Risk of Sexually Transmitted Disease
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WebMD Health News

Aug. 1, 2003 - Many young women are having unprotected sex -- yet they don't realize how risky it is.

In fact, these young women underestimate their risk for contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD), a new study shows. Binge drinking makes it more likely they will have sex -- minus a condom -- the study adds.

STDs are a significant health problem for young women -- nationally, among women ages 15 - 24, rates of human papillomavirus (HPV), genital herpes, and chlamydia are particularly high, writes researcher Kimberly S. H. Yarnall, MD, with Duke University Medical Center.

STDs can substantially increase risk of infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, stillbirths, and chronic pain, Yarnall points out. Also, HPV may be a cause of cervical cancer.

"Even though they are having unprotected sex, most young women would say they are at low-risk of contracting an STD," she says in a news release. "Some don't see STDs as a big deal and are desensitized to the risk."

Risky Business

Yarnell's study included 1,210 women -- all sexually active, unmarried, heterosexual women between the ages of 18 and 25; some were students, some were not. During phone interviews, the women were asked about all sorts of risk behaviors, like binge drinking, history of vaginal sex and STDs, how they perceived risk of contracting an STD, and condom use.

Here are some of the findings:

  • More than 75% of all the women felt they were at low risk of acquiring an STD.
  • Binge drinking was strongly linked with having unprotected sex -- but only among non-students.
  • The non-students were older, had more sex partners over the past year, and were more likely to have had STDs.
  • Both the students and non-students reported the same rates of unprotected sex in the past three months.
  • In both groups, women were less likely to use condoms if they were older, white, on birth control pills or had partners who didn't see condoms as important.

College students were steering away from binge drinking, likely because of special campus programs addressing the issue, Yarnall says.

Non-students in general were more likely to have unprotected sex with someone they did not consider to be a committed partner, she adds.

"Neither group had a great track record as far as safer sex," Yarnall says. "But the college students did a little better overall. Students were less likely to have unprotected sex with someone they met at a party or bar. Non-students were just as likely to have unprotected sex with their boyfriend as they were a man they had just met."

Doctors can help the situation by identifying and counseling young women who may not see themselves at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, she says.

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