Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by a cotton swab.
If you’ve ever had your throat swabbed for strep or your nose swabbed for COVID-19, I expect to see some hands!
Now that we’re all acquainted, let’s talk logistics: Several sexually transmitted infection (STI) tests are done with a swab. That’s right, the thing that we’ve been practicing for the past 2 years may actually come in handy when it’s time for your next STI screen.
Although you can test for some of the most common STIs — like gonorrhea and chlamydia — by peeing into a cup or getting your blood drawn, these tests can’t tell you where an infection is.
Enter: oral, anal, and genital swab tests.
The type of sex you have and with whom you have it are the true determinants of which STI tests you should get and when.
For example, if you have one sexual partner and you both only ever kiss, grind, and bang each other, you likely only need to get urine and blood tests once or twice a year.
But if you’re like me and tend to make out with multiple cuties on a night out, regular oral swab testing is crucial. Herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), which is typically associated with cold sores, and human papillomavirus (HPV) are easily spread through open-mouth kissing.
The same is true of other sex acts.
If you give one partner oral sex, receive penetrative anal sex or oral-anal sex (aka rimming) from a different partner, and have penetrative vaginal or anal sex with another partner, a combination of oral, anal, and genital swab tests are in order.
That’s because each area of the body has been exposed to a different level of risk.
Your level of risk typically depends on whether:
- you used a barrier method, like an internal or external condom
- the barrier method was put on correctly and used before skin-to-skin contact began
- the barrier method broke or was otherwise used incorrectly
- you know your current STI status and that of your partner(s)
- you and your partner(s) are consistently and correctly using any preventive medications (like PreP for HIV) or treatments (like oral acyclovir for herpes)
Swab tests for STIs are relatively simple to administer. Much like a COVID-19 test, a cotton swab is inserted into the area and rotated for about 15 seconds to collect a sample of cells.
But advocating for the tests is another story. Because swab tests aren’t considered standard — even though they should be — you’ll likely have to ask for them, specifically when making an appointment or talking with a healthcare professional.
While some clinicians may agree to administer swab tests then and there, others may require you to further explain why you want the test and why you think it’s necessary.
Consider saying something like:
- “Hey doc, can we do an oral swab test in addition to my bloodwork? I want to make sure I don’t have any oral STIs.”
- “My partner and I have started seeing other people, so I want to get a comprehensive STI screen including oral, vaginal, and anal swab tests.”
- “Can you tell me a bit more about penile swab tests? I read an article about them recently, and I think I’d like to get one done just to be safe.”
And if your clinician doesn’t agree? It might be time to find a new one. It doesn’t matter if you receive care at your local health department, university health center, or primary care clinic — you deserve to be listened to and to have your healthcare needs met.
The folks at the front desk should be able to help you book your next appointment with a different clinician. You may also be able to schedule an appointment online or by phone.
Generally, you should get screened for STIs:
- at least once a year, regardless of your anatomy or relationship status
- anytime you see a new or different sexual partner
- if you have oral, anal, or vaginal sex without a barrier method
- if your genitals or bum are touched, rubbed, or humped by a partner before putting a barrier method in place
- if you have sexual contact with someone who has an STI or whose STI status you do not know
My advice: Take advantage of free or lower-cost STI testing in your area and get tested as often as possible for your individual situation.
If that’s urine, blood, and swab tests once a year, GREAT! If that’s urine and blood tests every 6 months, AMAZING! No matter the timeline or combination, some STI testing is 1,000 percent better than no STI testing.
Sexual health and wellness writers Gabrielle Kassel and Adrienne Santos-Longhurst are here to tell you more with a stellar line-up of articles for STI Awareness Week, which runs from April 10 to April 16.
First, Kassel gives us all a much-needed reminder that yes, we are still in the midst of a pandemic. Regardless of what elected officials say, COVID-19 is still a threat to even the healthiest of us — and it’s affecting the way we get tested for STIs.
The pandemic has also changed the way we think about safer sex. Historically, safer sex has been defined as reducing the risk of STI transmission during partnered (or multi-partnered) sexual activity. Now, safer sex includes reducing the risk of both STI and COVID-19 transmission.
(Have questions about getting the COVID-19 vaccine? Check out our article on vaccine safety.)
To learn more about which STI tests you should get, Kassel offers a deep dive into nongenital STI testing and anal STI testing, specifically.
She also compiled our comprehensive guide to STI testing with crucial information about which community organizations offer testing and the vetted free or lower-cost locations in the top, middle, and bottom of each state and in Washington, D.C.
Santos-Longhurst rounds out this year’s collection with an extensive breakdown of who to share your STI test results with and how to go about it. Be sure to peep the super-helpful templates for texting or talking on the phone or in person about your results.
Something else on your mind? Our sex, relationships, and identity hub covers everything from pandemic-related relationship woes and anal sex tips to exploring your gender, unpacking body neutrality, and more.
Tess Catlett is a sex and relationships editor at Healthline, covering all things sticky, scary, and sweet. Find her unpacking her inherited trauma and crying over Harry Styles on Twitter.