You’re itching down there, and it’s getting pretty unbearable. You’re not even sure if you can make through your biochem class at this rate. Or you’ve noticed a discharge that probably shouldn’t be there, and it hurts when you pee. But you’re too embarrassed to go to the health clinic, especially if you’ve never been examined “down there” before. And you’re afraid that if you do have an STD, your parents will find out. 

Well, here’s why you should screw up your courage and go.

College students are at a higher-than-normal risk of getting a sexually-transmitted disease — and passing it on. These STDs include chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, syphilis, crabs (pubic lice) and even HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, the virus that can cause AIDS), along with some others you may not have even heard of, according to a recent report from Johns Hopkins University researchers. “Estimates show that 15- to 24-year-olds account for nearly one-half of all new STD cases in the United States, even though they only represent 25 percent of the sexually active population,” they note.

If you do have an STD, failing to get it treated will only make things worse. Left untreated for too long, some STDs, like gonorrhea, can cause painful inflammation and in rare cases, sterility, infertility and even death.

If you’re monogamous and think there’s no way that itch or sore could be an STD, consider this: One in six college students failed to use a condom during their last sexual encounter, and only half say they use them all the time, according to the latest polls. You could even be a virgin and get an STD: If your partner has been exposed to, say, the tiny and extremely contagious mites that cause scabies, you can get them from hugging.

"Don’t let embarrassment or shame keep you from getting tested if you’re concerned,” says Indiana University professor of medicine J. Dennis Fortenberry, MS, MD, a spokesperson for the American Sexual Health Association. “It’s the responsible thing to do, for your own health and the health of your partner.”

Can you get tested and treated without your parents knowing? 

In the American College Health Association’s most recent sexual health poll, all but 4 percent of 150 colleges polled said they test sexually active students for STDs on request — and 40 percent do so free of charge.

Worried that your parents will see the bill and find out? “If you’re concerned about confidentiality, such as your parents receiving an explanation of benefits from their health insurance company outlining the tests you’ve received, ask up front how the health service or clinic handles privacy,” Fortenberry says. 

You can also find a free, confidential test center near you via the CDC’s “Get Tested” online locater.

Stay protected

Of course the best way to "treat" an STD is to avoid getting one in the first place. Here’s what college students should know.

Always use condoms. Always using a condom when you have sex “significantly” cuts risk for contracting or spreading an STD, according to the CDC. Look for condoms for men or women that are made from latex or polyurethane and have a disease-prevention claim on the label. If you need extra lubrication, choose one with built-in lubrication or use a water-based lube made to pair with a condom, the Food and Drug Administration suggests.The National Institutes of Health says female condoms help protect against HIV but may be less effective against other STDs than male condoms, but in a University of Pennsylvania study of more than 1,400 women, STD protection rates were similar with condoms made for men or for women.

And don’t slack off on condom use because you feel invincible: In a New York University survey, student use of condoms dropped by half between their freshman and senior year of college.

Related: Avoid These Condom Mistakes

Talk with your partner. It’s important to discuss protection before you decide to have sex, Fortenberry says. Get tested together later if you notice any any itching, pain, sores or other worrisome or unusual symptoms.

See your doctor right away if you notice these symptoms. “STDs can cause a wide variety of symptoms. Some may seem like no big deal or may seem like something else, such as menstrual cramps,” Fortenberry says. But pay attention to them and make an appointment at the student health center or clinic if you have:

  • Pain, burning, or itching around the vagina, penis, or anus
  • Abnormal discharge or bleeding from the vagina or penis
  • Bleeding between periods (for women)
  • Swollen or painful testicles (for men)
  • Pain with sexual intercourse or urination
  • Sores, blisters or warts on or around the genitals, rectum or mouth
  • Rectal pain, discharge, itching, bleeding, or painful bowel movements
  • A feeling of fullness or discomfort in the lower abdomen (for women)  

Got vaccinated for HPV if you haven't already. The HPV vaccine is approved for young women and men through age 26 and protects against HPV strains that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers in women. It also lowers risk for cancers of the penis, anus, vulva, vagina and throat. Make sure you’ve also received the vaccine for hepatitis B, a liver-damaging virus also spread through sexual contact, Fortenberry says. Two out of three adults haven’t had this important series of shots, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in 2014. 

Get screened

The CDC recommends all adults be tested at least once for HIV. Sexually active women who are younger than age 25 or have multiple sexual partners should be screened every year for chlamydia and gonorrhea; these infections could make it harder to have a healthy baby or even conceive later on. Women ages 21 to 30 should also have a Pap test, which looks for signs of cervical cancer (caused by HPV infection), every three years or as recommended by their doctor.

Related:  Protect yourself from sexual assault at college

Sari Harrar is an award-winning health, medicine and science journalist whose work appears in Dr. Oz The Good Life magazine, Good Housekeeping, O--Oprah Magazine, Organic Gardening and other publications.