Untreated sexually transmitted infections (STIs)can lead to a variety of health problems including infertility, cervical cancer, and blindness. Although there is no one test that can check for all STIs, diagnostic testing is readily available.
If you are sexually active but are not in a long-term monogamous relationship, regular testing is advisable. With the number of different STIs out there, it can be confusing to know which ones you should be tested for, which is why it is a good idea to discuss your sexual history honestly with your doctor. If you engage in anal sex, tell your doctor, as different tests might be recommended. You should also be sure to tell your doctor about types of protection used during sex, any medications being taken, and if you have any reason to suspect infection based on your partner’s sexual history.
Some tests are part of (or should be a part of) an annual checkup. All women who are sexually active should have a Pap smear. This is a simple, painless procedure where cells from the cervix are collected. The test can reveal the presence of cancerous cells and can indicate HPV (human papillomavirus) infection. Most doctors recommend an annual Pap smear, although once every two or three years may be enough if you are in a long-term relationship and have had repeated normal test results.
Pap smears are generally not necessary in women over 65, though there may be special cases in which a test is appropriate. When the doctor does the gynecological exam and Pap smear, it is very likely she will also take a sample from the cervix to test for gonorrhea and chlamydia. It is routine to test for this in sexually active women and the benefits of the testing far outweighs the risks of testing.
No regular STI checks are suggested for men, but for anyone who engages in anal intercourse (male or female), it is highly recommended that to have regular (every six to 12 months) tests for HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. Since each infection has its own incubation period, regular testing can help to diagnose abnormalities that may go unnoticed with just one test.
Of course, if you spot any unusual symptoms that may indicate an STI, medical advice should be sought promptly.
The type of infection you are tested for will determine the testing procedure. Common types of tests are vaginal swabs, blood tests, urine tests, and pelvic examinations. A physical examination lets the doctor check for inflammation, rashes, warts, and unusual discharge, which may then be swabbed and sent to the lab. Sometimes, a diagnosis can be made during the original visit, but if swabs and samples are required, it may take several weeks before you get your results. Don’t assume that you are automatically being tested for all STIs. Ask the physician which tests are being done and why. Taking care of your sexual health is no time to be shy, so if you are concerned about a particular infection, ask. There are strong protections regarding information shared between patient and physician, so the more honest you are, the better treatment you can receive. The doctor cannot help you if he or she does not know the complete story!
You may receive testing for STIs at your regular physician’s office or at a free testing clinic; where you go is a matter of personal preference. Be aware that wherever you are tested, if your results indicate HIV, chlamydia, syphilis, hepatitis, or gonorrhea, the clinic is legally required to notify the local health department. Do not let this put you off being tested, though, as prompt diagnosis allows for prompt treatment and further preventive measures. At home tests are also available for some STIs; after buying the kit at a local pharmacy, you simply mail in the required swabs and receive the results within three to seven days.