With sexually transmitted infection (STI) and sexually transmitted diseases (STD) rates continually on the rise, it’s more important than ever to take care of you, and your partner(s), sexual health.
One of the key ways to do this is to go for STI/STD screening and testing. Whether you’re going for the first time, or you simply need a refresher, this guide will walk you through what the process is like.
After all, the stigmas surrounding sex and sexual health are harmful, and the more you know, the better. (For instance, it’s good to know that STDs is the term most often used when you show symptoms, but the more modern terminology of STI includes those who may only show mild signs or symptoms or none at all.)
“We need to normalize sexual health, this is not about disease, this is about health,” explains Peter Leone, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina. “This is not about your behavior, this is about being human and showing responsibility for yourself and your partner(s).”
Why You Should Get Tested
“Anybody who is sexually active has a risk of contracting an STI, most commonly HPV, followed by herpes,” says Dr. Leone. In fact, according to the CDC, the human papillomavirus “is so common, nearly all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives.”
While STDs are affecting millions every day, there’s a good chance that if you have one, you may not even know it. “Eighty percent of sexually transmitted infections show no symptoms,” Leone says, “Testing should be based on age and risk factors”
STDs that go untreated can lead to a variety of possible consequences, including infertility, infecting a partner, or contracting HIV.
Whether you go to a doctor or a clinic or you take an at-home testing kit, what’s important, Leone says is that you do it period. “Whatever works for, if you can get screened, do it.”
How Often Should You Get Tested?
For most individuals, Leone says testing should be done once a year. However, “If you’re in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship, you can go once and won’t need to be re-screened.” (If you’re not sure about your partner’s behavior, then you should go at least once a year.)
If you have a frequent change in partners, or you are in a higher risk group, STD testing should be part of your routine maintenance and should be done every 3–6 months.
What the STD Testing Process is Like
If you decide to go to your doctor or a clinic for testing, you’ll be asked about your behavior, such as frequency in partner changes, what kinds of sex you’re having, the gender of your partner(s), whether or not you’re using barrier methods, and other potential risk factors. You’ll also discuss if you’re showing any potential signs or symptoms. (The STD Project breaks down all of the potential signs and symptoms that can arise from sexually transmitted diseases or infections.)
There are different types of tests for the different types of diseases and infections, including blood tests, urine tests, and/or swabs. For instance, when it comes to syphilis and hepatitis A, B, and C, blood is the only way you can screen and make a diagnosis. HIV can also be diagnosed through a blood test (which can either be a finger stick or a blood draw) or a rapid test oral swab.
Herpes, Leone explains, can be tested through blood in order to tell the difference between HSB1 and HSB2. If you don’t have a lesion, you won’t be able to do a swab; however, if you suspect you have a lesion, sore, or ulcer, you may have a swab coupled with a blood test for a diagnosis.
Testing for gonorrhea and chlamydia (which has “comprised the largest proportion of all STDs reported to CDC”) can be done reliably via an anal, oral, or vaginal swab, as well as urine.
If you will be providing a urine sample, Leone recommends not peeing at least 30-60 minutes before your scheduled appointment, as going may “wash out the organism” and the infection may go undetected.
How Long Do STD Results Take?
This all depends on the kind of test you take, and where. If you get a rapid finger test or oral swab, results can take as little as 10-20 minutes, while a blood draw may warrant results within 24 hours.
Syphilis results typically take 1-2 days, Leone says, while gonorrhea and chlamydia are typically the next day. Herpes, on the other hand, can take 2-3 days if testing was done by a swab, while a blood test can be several days to a week.
Now, let’s say your partner has been tested for an STD: in this case, you’ll want to get tested, too, and not necessarily wait for results to reduce the amount of time between symptoms or get your own possible positive result.
What Happens If You Test Positive?
If you test positive for an STD, Leone says, “Treatment should happen as soon as the diagnosis is made.” For HIV in particular, treatment (which is lifelong) can even start the same day as the diagnosis.
If you have been diagnosed with syphilis, you should go back to your doctor or care provider (including walk-in clinics or health departments) as soon as possible to be treated with a shot of penicillin. “You don’t want to develop complications or symptoms or pass it on to someone else,” Leone says.
Other STDs, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea will be treated with antibiotics. Herpes and hepatitis can be treated with antiviral medications. At-home tests that warrant positive results for STDs should be followed-up with a visit to a healthcare provider in order to start treatment.
For follow-up testing and treatment, Leone says this depends on what infection you have/had and how you were initially treated.) If you are pregnant and test positive for STDs like gonorrhea or chlamydia, you’ll want to get screened and tested again to make sure you’re cleared.)
“Follow-ups are important,” Leone says, “Not because you may have failed treatment, but because you may have had a partner(s) who did not get treated and you can get re-infected.”
Follow-up times vary, for instance, your body may take time to respond to treatments for syphilis (and not everyone responds to the treatments) so you’ll go back about six months later. When it comes to HIV, Leone says, you’ll go back within a month to see how you’re doing with your medications, and then about three months later to check to make sure there’s been a drop of the virus in the bloodstream. From there, you and your doctor or provider will discuss ongoing follow-up procedures.
If you don’t have a doctor you see regularly, check with Planned Parenthood to find locations near you for STD/STI testing. If that’s not a readily available option, you can search the CDC to find out where you can get fast, free, and confidential testing.