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It's Not As Scary As You Think: STI Testing

If you're sexually active, testing for STIs on a regular basis is necessary. 

This is especially true if you have had multiple sexual partners or unprotected sex since these situations increase your risk of contracting an STI. 

Unfortunately, a lot of folks talk about STIs as if they're punishment for sexual activity, and there's a lot of stigma around getting tested. Frankly, that's a pretty childish way to think about it. 

If you're sexually active, you should take care of your sexual health. It's that simple. 

If you're unsure about the STI testing process and when you should get tested, this article with break things down and demystify the process for you. 

Should I Get Tested For Sexually Transmitted Infections?

If you're sexually active, you should get tested. 

It's important to note that when we discuss being sexually active, that includes any form of penetrative sex and oral sex. Acts like mutual masturbation do not carry a significant risk of spreading STIs, however, if bodily fluids are exchanged, there is still some risk. 

Asymptomatic STIs are Common

Even if you do not experience any symptoms, you should still get tested. 

Often, we assume that if we have an STI, we would notice symptoms such as bumps, fever, urethral discharge, a burning sensation while urinating, or testicular swelling and soreness. 

That's not always the case. Chlamydia and gonorrhea infections, for example, can linger around asymptomatically for months, especially in people with penises. 

Infections Don't Just Occur In Your Genitals

The classic assumption is that your genitals are the only point of concern for contracting STIs. However, you can also have an infection in your throat or rectally. 

What Is Testing Like?

There are a few ways you can get tested. If it's your first time, we recommend going into your doctor's office or your local health department. This way, you'll be able to speak with nurses and medical professionals to ask any questions– your local health department will also be able to provide you with condoms and other forms of contraception if you need them.

Generally speaking, the most awkward part of getting tested is the questionnaire you'll have to answer first. The nurse you're with will ask you questions such as your number of sexual partners, if you've engaged in high-risk behaviors (such as unprotected sex or sharing needles), and whether or not you are currently experiencing any symptoms. 

Once that is over, the testing will begin. If you're not actively experiencing symptoms, then a standard full STI panel will include collecting a urine sample, swabbing your throat, and collecting a blood sample. 

If you are actively experiencing symptoms or believe you have had sex with a sexual partner who has since tested positive for an STI, then you may have to collect additional samples. Rectal swabs and urethral swabs can be conducted. Again, these may be a bit awkward and will be slightly uncomfortable, but they'll be over quickly. 

Since a lot of people do not like needles, I'll clarify that the blood sample may be as insignificant as a finger prick. If the nurse needs to conduct a rapid HIV test, all they need is a small drop of blood. A full panel, however, may include a slightly larger blood sample to test for hepatitis and syphilis. 

It should also be noted that the nurse or doctor you're working with only cares about getting your results and providing the appropriate treatment. They could not care less about whether or not you're "promiscuous," the size of your penis, or your sexuality. That information is also protected by HIPAA, meaning that they cannot share or discuss it with anybody else (assuming you are an adult– minors aren't protected by HIPAA in the same way since medical treatments and interventions will likely need to be discussed with a guardian).  

At-Home Testing

If you do not have any symptoms and haven't engaged in especially high-risk behavior, you may also be able to complete your STI testing at home. 

There are tests for individual STIs that you can purchase at drug stores. Additionally, services like Nurx can send you a full panel collection kit that you can complete on your own. 

Once you've collected your samples, if you're using an in-home product that tests for individual STIs, you'll wait for your sample to process and then review your results. If your result is positive, contact your healthcare provider immediately for further testing and medical consultation. 

If you're using a product like Nurx, you'll follow the included instructions to send your samples to their lab and then wait for your results. 

Getting Your STI Test Results

Regardless of how you get tested, you'll get your results back in a few days to a week. 

If you've gotten tested at your local health department, you may not receive any follow-up if all of your tests came back negative. Some health departments will only call you or send you a letter if a test for something has come back positive. It's important to ask before you leave the office so that you know what to expect.

While waiting for your results, it's recommended that you do not engage in further sexual activity. If you are asymptomatic and positive for an STI, you could spread that to new sexual partners. 

What If I've Tested Positive?

When you get your results, if something did come back positive, the medical provider who conducted your test will prescribe the appropriate medication.

Simple infections like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis can be treated and cleared up fairly easily with the appropriate short-term treatment.

However, if these infections go undiagnosed and untreated, they can develop significant long-term complications, including a weakened immune system, increased risk of cancer, and infertility.  

More complicated infections, such as HIV, require more medical intervention. If you do test positive for HIV, your healthcare provider will work with you to get you on the appropriate medication regimen. While HIV is still fairly stigmatized, it's important to note that with medication, you can reach an undetectable status– meaning you can't pass on the infection to new partners– and there are also ongoing clinical trials that purport to be close to finding a cure for established HIV infections. 

Another important aspect of a positive test is that you communicate with your sexual partners. Especially if you've had unprotected sex, your sexual partners may have either been the source of your STI infection or could have been exposed to it. They should also contact the appropriate healthcare provider to get tested as well. 

How Important is It Really to Get Tested?

In 2018, it was calculated that 1 in 5 people in the United States has an STI. That's about 68 million Americans. 

If you've only had protected sex with a single person who has also only had sex with you, your risk of STI exposure is non-existent (outside of possible undiagnosed congenital infections). However, beyond that, statistics suggest that you do have some risk of STI exposure. 

Using contraceptives greatly reduces your risk of contracting or spreading STIs, however they do not eliminate risk entirely. While contraceptives like condoms prevent the exchange of sexual fluids and reduce skin contact when used correctly, there is still some inherent risk of exposure. Additionally, many individuals who use condoms do not use dental dams or similar devices to reduce contact during oral sex, leading to a standard degree of risk for oral transmission. 

We can't reiterate it enough: if you're sexually active, get tested. 

How Frequently Should I Get Tested?

At a minimum, if you're sexually active, you should get tested once per year. This is true whether or not you experience any symptoms or have been informed by a sexual partner that they have tested positive for an STI. 

If you have multiple sexual partners, unprotected sex, or engage in anal sex, then you should get tested at least every 6 months. Every three months would be a better cadence, assuming you've been consistently sexually active during that time. 

If you've engaged in especially high-risk behaviors such as sharing hypodermic needles and using intravenous drugs, then getting tested every three months should be your minimum testing cadence. Participating in needle exchanges and not sharing needles with others will also help reduce your risk of spreading or contracting HIV.