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Health Awareness Q4 2023

Student health services help mitigate rising sexually transmitted infections

iStock / Getty Images Plus / Mirel Kipioro

Caroline Kennedy-Crawford

Student Health Nurse, Atlantic Technological University, Sligo (ISHA President)

Dr Robert Scully

Medical Director, Student Health Services,
Maynooth University (ISHA Vice President)

The Irish student population (estimated at 350,000 people) bear a disproportionate burden of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), with 40% of all STIs notified occurring in the under-25 age group.1

Although STIs are usually easy to treat, some can cause serious health issues. Chlamydia is the most common STI but can be asymptomatic in 50–80% of infected individuals. The asymptomatic nature of many STIs means young people often do not seek treatment for their infection.

Helping students prevent STIs

The Irish Student Health Association (ISHA) find students often do not have the skills or experience to negotiate safe sexual health practices. Students are often establishing their identity and making the transition into adulthood. This may lead to experimental sexual behaviours, including high-risk encounters and/or multiple partners.

Equally, not all students are sexually active, and students should not feel pressured into having sex. Importantly, students should be educated and empowered to protect themselves from STIs. They must also ensure consent is always given and that sexual encounters are safe, consensual and enjoyable.

Access to condoms for protection

Studies have found that 47% of Irish students reported inconsistent condom use.2 Despite widespread awareness of the consequences of STIs, young people often ignore safe sex guidance, and this places them at risk. One of the most effective public health tools to prevent STIs are condoms. In 2015, the HSE Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme (SHCPP) set up the National Condom Distribution Service (NCDS) to supply free condoms and lubricants to target elevated-risk populations, including Irish Higher Education.

Students will receive education from student
health professionals, which is non-judgmental,
confidential and supportive.

Student health services offer advice and STI screening

 Student health services provide an ideal setting for targeted campaigns to reach this at-risk group, promote safe sex practices (including consent) and encourage STI screening. Testing is essential for identifying STIs and limiting their onward transmission. Students are often embarrassed or frightened to seek help, but the methods used today are a lot less invasive than those used in the past, so there’s little to worry about in terms of the testing experience.

Students will receive education from student health professionals, which is non-judgmental, confidential and supportive. Student health professionals have extensive training and expertise in managing the sexual health needs of students. Most institutions offer free or subsidised care. Free, at-home testing through SH:24 is available for students who are not comfortable attending the health centre in person. It is available in every county in Ireland, ensuring access to all students.

Initiatives promoting sexual health practices

Sex education is normalised through Higher Education health promotion campaigns, such as SHAG (Sexual Health Awareness and Guidance) events. The key message is to use condoms correctly every time you have sex (oral, anal, vaginal) and get tested regularly, particularly if you have new or multiple partners.

Staff in student health centres will empower young people to look after their sexual health and provide them with the tools to make safe and informed decisions, which should continue throughout their lifetime.

The Irish Student Health Association (ISHA) represents healthcare professionals working in third-level student health centres across Ireland. For free, 24-hour home testing, visit

[1] Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) in Ireland: Trends to the end of 2022 Health Protection Surveillance Centre Acknowledgements (2023). Available at:
[2] Dolphin, L., Fitzgerald, A. and Dooley, B. (2018) ‘ Risky sex behaviours among college students: The psychological profile,’ Early Intervention Psychiatry, 12, pp.1203-1212. Available at: DOI:10.1111/eip.12526.
[3] Lally K, Nathan-V Y, Dunne S, McGrath D, Cullen W, Meagher D, Coffey JC, Dunne C. (2015) Awareness of sexually transmitted infection and protection methods among university students in Ireland. Irish Journal of Medical Science. 2015 Mar;184(1):135-42. doi: 10.1007/s11845-014-1073-8. Epub 2014 Feb 8. PMID: 24510451.

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