Why get tested for STDs?
If you are sexually active you should talk with a doctor or health care provider about getting tested for STDs. If you have had any kind of unprotected sexual contact - any exchange of blood, semen (including pre-semen or pre-cum), or vaginal fluids—you could have been exposed to an STD. The only way to know for sure if you or your partner has an STD is to get tested. If you do have an STD, early diagnosis and treatment can help you to stay healthy—your health care provider can prescribe the appropriate treatment to cure or help control symptoms, as well as help lower the risk of infecting your partner.
How do I know if I need to be tested?
The first step is to talk with a doctor or health care provider about your experiences—your complete sexual history. This includes: the kinds of sex you've had, the number and gender of partners, what kinds of protection you used and how frequently you used it, etc. Make sure you are honest—it's the only way for your provider to accurately assess your risks, and do the appropriate tests. Tests for STDs, including HIV/AIDS, are not usually included as part of a routine health exam, so you'll probably have to ask for one. Many people assume incorrectly that if testing doesn't come up there is no problem. But many health care providers assume the same thing. This "don't ask - don't tell" approach can have negative consequences for your health. If they don't bring it up, consider asking.
You should know that your provider can't test you for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, without your consent. The only way to know for sure that you are being tested—or to find out whether you should be—is to talk with a health care provider.
There are many different opportunities to consider testing:
- For women, your annual GYN visit may be convenient time to talk with a health care provider about testing. Keep in mind that a PAP test isn't a test for STDs.
- If you are thinking about becoming sexually active with a new partner, you and your partner should be tested together. But even if you are currently sexually active with a partner, it is never too late to get tested.
- If you think you might be experiencing symptoms (see list) you should get tested ASAP.
- If you have used intravenous (IV) drugs, or have had unprotected sexual intercourse or oral sex with someone who has used IV drugs, you should also talk with a provider about being tested.
- If you are pregnant, the CDC recommends getting an HIV test as early in the pregnancy as possible - antiretroviral HIV treatment during pregnancy can significantly lower the chances that an HIV-infected woman will pass the virus on to her baby. Screening for syphilis, hepatitis B, and chlamydia are also recommended. For those women at risk of gonorrhea, hepatitis C, and bacterial vaginosis, screening is also recommended.
The CDC recommends that ALL sexually active young people under the age of 25 be screened annually for chlamydia, even if symptoms are not present. Women over the age of 25 should be screened if they are at risk for chlamydia infection—for example, if they have a new sexual partner or if they have had multiple sex partners.
Some STDs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and HIV, have infection rates that are highest among teens and young adults (and they often don't have symptoms!), so you may want to ask your provider about screening for them. Because vaccination is one of the most effective methods for preventing transmission of certain STDs, the CDC and ASHA suggest that you might also want to discuss vaccinations for hepatitis A and B with your provider. And young women should have an annual pelvic exam and Pap smear—a cervical swab test that can detect abnormal cell changes, which can be caused by the STD HPV.
You can also call the FFYR hotline (1-888-BE-SAFE-1) and get connected to the CDC counselors to talk about the type of testing you should consider. Or click here to find a testing center near you.
What do you need to know before you go?
You'll want to know the answers to the following questions before your appointment to make sure that you are getting care that works for you, now and in the long term.
- Does the clinic provide "anonymous" or "confidential" testing for HIV?
The difference could be important—anonymous testing doesn't link your name to your test results; confidential test results may become part of your medical record and may be made available to medical personnel.
- When will I receive my results? How will you contact me?
You should also find out how and when you'll get your results. If the test is negative will they contact you? You may not want someone to leave a message on your machine or with the receptionist at your office.
- How much will it cost?
Some clinics offer free or low-cost testing services based on a sliding scale. When you set up the appointment you can ask whether either of these are available. If you don't pay at the visit, you may want to know whether you will get a bill in the mail.
- Is my visit confidential?
If you are under 18 and concerned about how to get testing and treatment in private, you should know that there are clinics where you can get confidential STD testing that is private and affordable. No one needs to know you were there, unless you want to tell them. To talk with a counselor at the CDC about finding a clinic, call 1-888-BE SAFE-1, or use the CDC's Testing Center Database.
What should I expect?
There is no "universal" test for STDs. There are different tests for different STDs. It's important to discuss which tests you should have with a health care provider. Also, you should know that just because you had blood drawn or gave a urine sample doesn't necessarily mean you were tested for STDs. You have to ask to make sure. Here are the details on some of the different tests available:
- Blood test: This can test for hepatitis A, B and C; herpes (Although most blood tests for herpes cannot distinguish between type 1 and type 2), syphilis, and HIV.
- Urine test: This can be used to test for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HIV.
- Swab cell culture or discharge sample from the throat, anus, cervix, or urethral opening of the penis: This is used to test for bacterial vaginosis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis.
- Swab DNA test from the cervix or urethral opening of the penis: This is used to test for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HPV. The HPV DNA test is used for women as follow up to an abnormal Pap smear that indicates HPV infection. It is not reliable for testing HPV in men.
- Swab sample from a sore or lesion: This can be used to test for herpes and syphilis.
- Swab sample from oral fluids: This can be used to test for HIV.
- Visual Exam: This can detect crabs, herpes, and HPV.
Vaccines are available for hepatitis A (2-dose vaccine) and hepatitis B (3-dose vaccine). There is also a combination vaccine for both hepatitis A and B (3-dose vaccine).
For more information on STD testing, go to the American Social Health Association's Facts and Answers about STDs or contact their Herpes Hotline (1-919-361-8488) and HPV/Cervical Cancer Hotline (1-919-361-4848).
You can also try the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hotlines for STDs 1-800-227-8922, and HIV/AIDS (1-800-342-AIDS).
What happens after the test?
Before you leave the clinic or your doctor's office, ask about how you will receive your results.
- Should you call if you don't hear back?
- Will they send something in the mail?
- What if your test comes back positive? Or, your partner's test comes back positive?
What are your treatment options?
Your health care provider will discuss treatment options with you depending on the kind of STD you have. There are two basic categories of STDs: "bacterial" and "viral". Bacterial infections are usually easily cured with antibiotics prescribed by your doctor. Viral infections, including HIV and herpes, are not curable, but treatment options are available. Early diagnosis and treatment of viral infections is critical in ensuring your best health. There are also a few parasitic STD infections, but these too are usually easily cured with antibiotics prescribed by your doctor.
How do I talk with my partner about STDs?
You should have a frank conversation with your partner about your sexual histories—this includes the kinds of sex you've had, number and gender of previous partners, types and frequency of protection used, previous tests for STDs, as well as any other things that may put you at risk, like intravenous drug use. It's important to remember that even if you have tested negative for STDs, your partner needs to be tested too. Of course, it's best if you both get tested BEFORE you become sexually active, but it's never too late. And if either partner tests positive it is important that you get treatment together to avoid passing the STD between the two of you.
And, what if I have an STD? What do I say then?
Telling your partner can be tough but it's better to be honest. That way you take the right precautions to protect yourself and your partner, which may mean that your partner talk with a provider about getting tested and both of you being treated.
For more tips on how to tell your partner you have an STD, click here.
How can you stay safe?
The best way to avoid STDs is to keep your partner's blood, semen, and vaginal fluids out of your body. Abstinence is the safest course. But, if you are going to have sex, always use latex condoms—and that includes using condoms and dental dams (square pieces of latex available in some drugstores) for oral sex. Consistent and correct use of condoms for those who are sexually active can substantially reduce risk of HIV infection, and it also provides the best available means of reducing the risk of transmitting other STDs. But, you should know that condoms are not 100% effective at preventing disease—and that some STDs can be transmitted through skin to skin contact and touching. The most important thing to remember about condoms is that if you are sexually active, you need to use one each and every time to reduce your risk for STDs. To be extra safe, use one even when you're using another form of birth control.
For more information on condoms click here.
Next time you have a check up…Talking Tips
Don't wait for your health care provider to bring up the issue of STDs. Many health care providers miss opportunities to talk with their patients about STDs, how to prevent them and when to be tested. STD testing is usually not part of a regular physical exam, so unless you talk to your provider about it, you can't assume you've been tested. Pap smears do not test you for STDs. And you should know that your provider can't test you for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, without your consent. If you want to know whether you should be tested, you need to ask.
Here are some questions to consider raising with your health care provider at your next school physical, GYN exam, or annual check-up:
- Am I at risk for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, or any other STDs?
Come prepared to talk about your sexual history and anything else that you think might put you at risk.
- Should I be tested for STDs? Which ones?
- How much will this cost? What about my privacy?
If cost and confidentiality issues are important to you, be sure to address these issues before getting tested. Be sure to ask how tests are conducted and how results are provided to ensure confidentiality.
- Should I be vaccinated for hepatitis?
Vaccinations for hepatitis A and hepatitis B, the only two STDs for which vaccinations now exist.
Back to FFYR Main Page