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Testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can help keep you and your partners safe. Here’s what to know about who should test and when.
If you’re sexually active, you’re potentially at risk for a sexually transmitted infection (STI). This is even more likely if you don’t use protection.
While STIs are easily treatable, they don’t always have symptoms so often go unnoticed. Complications of untreated STIs can have serious consequences, including infertility. They can also lead to sexually transmitted disease (STD).
That’s why STD testing is so important, and regularly if you have multiple partners. Here’s what else you need to know.
In this article, we use “male and female” to refer to someone’s sex as determined by their chromosomes, and “men and women” when referring to their gender (unless quoting from sources using nonspecific language).
Sex is determined by chromosomes, and gender is a social construct that can vary between time periods and cultures. Both of these aspects are acknowledged to exist on a spectrum both historically and by modern scientific consensus.
The difference between STDs, or sexually transmitted diseases, and STIs is often muddled.
Sexually transmitted infections occur when bacteria, parasites, or viruses enter the body. This process happens before a sexually transmitted disease develops.
And while STDs stem from STIs, having an STI does not necessarily mean you’ll develop a disease from that infection. An STI can be asymptomatic (without disease), but if symptoms or clinical manifestations develop, it becomes an STD.
If you’ve been sexually active, it’s a good idea to be tested for STIs. Also, get tested if:
- you’re about to begin a new relationship
- you and your partner are thinking about not using condoms or other barrier methods of birth control
- your partner has cheated on you
- you or your partner have multiple partners
- you have symptoms that suggest you might have an STI
If you’re in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship and both you and your partner were tested before entering the relationship, you may not need regular STI testing.
But many people in long-term relationships weren’t tested before they got together. If that’s the case for you and your partner, one or both of you may have been living with an undiagnosed STI for years. The safest choice is to get tested.
Talk with a doctor if you’re concerned about a particular infection or symptom. The more honest you are, the better treatment you can receive.
Also know that many physicians don’t regularly test patients for STIs, even during routine wellness exams; that’s why it’s important to ask your doctor for STI testing and ask which tests they plan to do and why.
Pregnant people also need to make testing a priority, as STIs can affect the fetus. Your doctor should screen for STIs, among other things, at your first prenatal visit, including syphilis, HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.
In addition to the above, the CDC offers the following
- Anyone ages 13–64 should be tested for HIV at least once in their life, as well as after any potential exposure.
- Sexually active women under 25 years old should be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia yearly.
- Women who are 25 years and older with multiple sexual partners or partners with an STD should get tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia yearly.
- People with a high risk pregnancy should be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia in early pregnancy.
- Sexually active gay men, bisexual men, or other men who have sex with men should be tested for syphilis, chlamydia, HIV, and gonorrhea every 3–6 months if they have multiple or anonymous partners.
- Anyone who practices sex that could put them at risk of infection or who shares drug injection equipment should get tested for HIV yearly.
STD testing and sexual assault
It’s important to get tested if you’ve experienced sexual assault or any other type of sexual violence. If you’re a survivor of sexual assault, seek care from a trained healthcare professional.
Organizations like the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) offer support for survivors of rape or sexual assault. You can call RAINN’s 24/7 national sexual assault hotline at 800-656-4673 for anonymous, confidential help. RAINN can also help you find local support if needed.
There are a number of different STIs, and specific variables — like your birth-assigned gender and sexual history — come into play when deciding which to get tested for.
Your primary health care provider or your local health clinic can also recommend specific testing by learning more about your sexual history and lifestyle. You’ll likely be encouraged to test for one or more of the following:
Your doctor probably won’t offer to test you for herpes unless you have a known exposure or ask for the test.
STI testing is available at your doctor’s office, or your local health clinic, pharmacy, or nearest Planned Parenthood center. For a comprehensive look at your options, see our guide on STI testing and locations.
Other options for testing
Some people opt to use at-home STD testing kits. These kits allow you to test in your home’s privacy by providing samples and sending them back to a lab for testing. If you test positive for an STI, your next step would be to contact a healthcare professional.
Most STIs can be detected through urine or blood samples. Depending on your sexual history, your health care provider may conduct a series of tests for STIs, which can also include swab tests. These can be performed on the mouth, vagina, penis, or anus, depending on the type of test necessary based on symptoms and sexual history.
People assigned female at birth who have persistent HPV infections, particularly infections by HPV 16 and HPV 18, are at an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. People who have anal sex can also develop anal cancer from HPV infections.
Although some STIs can come without symptoms, it’s still good to watch for any signs of infection, even if they are very mild. For example, it’s important to let a doctor know if you’ve noticed any changes on or around your genitals. If you have anal sex, also let them know about any changes on or around your anus and rectum.
See a doctor or healthcare professional right away if you notice any of these symptoms:
If you get a positive STI test result, it’s important to follow up with your doctor for treatment. Also, make sure you inform any recent sexual partners, as some STIs can be transmitted back and forth. It’s a good idea to consider how you want to tell your partners — while factoring in safety if that’s a concern.
For example, a face-to-face conversation may be no big deal for some partners, while for others, it could pose harm if your partner has a history of emotional or physical aggression.
There are also anonymous, free options for sharing this information with partners if you prefer:
These options do not require the use of your personal information.
If you opt for a face-to-face conversation instead, it may be helpful to have relevant research and resources on hand. This way, you can answer any questions and discuss things with your partner, including treatment options, risks, incubation periods, etc.
It’s also OK to feel a wide variety of emotions if you test positive. These feelings are normal, and you can talk with your doctor about any concerns you may have.
You may be tested for STDs through blood, urine, and swab (genital, oral, anal, or site-specific). The testing method depends on the type of test and your symptoms.
You can get tested for STDs by visiting your primary health care provider, or your local health clinic, pharmacy, or Planned Parenthood location.
You may also consider purchasing an at-home STD test if you don’t have access to in-person testing.
College students can usually get free STD testing through their school’s affiliated health clinic.
Generally, testing checks for chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis B and C, trichomoniasis, syphilis, and HIV. People assigned female at birth can also be screened for HPV once they’ve turned 30 years old.
If you think you have an STD, get tested right away and stop all sexual activity with partners until you’ve received your results.
If you test positive, get on the recommended treatment plan immediately and refrain from sex until treatment is complete.
Depending on the STD, you may have to wait several days after treatment before resuming sexual activity.
STIs are common, and testing is widely available. The tests can vary depending on which STIs your doctor is checking for.
Talk with a doctor about your sexual history and ask which tests you should get. They can help you understand the potential benefits and risks of different STI tests. Doctors can also recommend appropriate treatment options if you test positive for any STIs.