STD Testing: Who Should Be Tested and What’s Involved
Regular STD testing is the best way for the sexually active to protect their health. Most sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can turn very serious and in some cases terminal if not treated. Some STDs’ symptomless infection makes detection and diagnosis all the more important. While those with multiple sexual partners are recommended to take STD screenings more frequently, it is still paramount that one gets tested at least once a year.
What is an STD?
Given that STDs do not always exhibit noticeable symptoms, STI, or sexually transmitted infection, is their more medically-preferred term. Sexually Transmitted Infections are infections that are transmitted through sexual contact. The most prevalent STIs are Gonorrhea, Syphilis, Herpes, HIV/AIDS, Chlamydia, Bacterial Vaginosis, and Hepatitis. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), a few notable statistics regarding sexually transmitted infections are:
- 1 in 5 people in the United States has an STI.
- There are between 25 and 30 million new STIs every year.
- New STIs cost nearly $16 billion per year in healthcare and treatment costs
Because of their vast impact on general health and healthcare expense, STI awareness and caution are one of the most important facets of preventative healthcare in the world today.
What are some common testing recommendations?
While the blanket recommendation is to include an annual STD screening in your health check-up schedule if you are sexually active, below are a few of CDC’s demographically-significant recommendations:
- Those who share injection drug equipment with others or engage in unsafe sex practices should get annually tested for HIV-AIDS.
- Gay or bisexual men who are sexually active are recommended to test for HIV at least once a year and for Gonorrhea, Syphilis, and Chlamydia every 3-6 months.
- Due to its transmissibility, everyone is recommended to get tested for HIV at least once in their lifetime.
- Early in their pregnancy, women are recommended to get tested for Gonorrhea, Syphilis, HIV, Chlamydia, and Hepatitis B.
- All sexually active women are recommended to get annual tests for Chlamydia and Gonorrhea.
What are the most common risk factors for an STI?
Though generally acquired through sexual contact, the pathogens that cause a sexually transmitted infection are spread through shared needles, childbirth (i.e., from the mother to the child), and through blood, semen, and other bodily fluids.
Despite being one of the most commonly transmitted infections, certain sections of the population are at a greater risk of contracting an STI, such as:
- Men/Women who have unprotected sex: While oral sex is less risky than anal and vaginal sex, any type of unprotected sex puts you at risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.
- Men/Women with multiple sex partners: Having multiple sex partners puts you at the statistical disadvantage of being exposed to more STIs.
- A Past History of STIs: Having one STI can sometimes have a cascading effect, making it much more probable to contract another.
- Needle Sharing: Sharing needles to intravenously inject drugs can put one at a greater danger of contracting STIs such as Hepatitis B and C and HIV.
How do you protect yourself from an STI?
While the most affordable way to prevent an STI is to engage in only safe sex, below are a few other common prevention methods to prevent infection:
- Get vaccinated: Vaccinations against HPV, Hepatitis A, and Hepatitis B are greatly effective in preventing these diseases when taken before exposure.
- Have sex with one healthy partner: Staying sexually active with only one partner who does not have any STIs is an excellent way to reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
- Use contraceptives: Using contraceptives such as condoms during oral, vaginal, or anal sex prevents most STIs (excluding Herpes and HPV).
- Communicate: Engaging partners in a healthy conversation regarding their sexual health can help mitigate STI transmission and help one make informed decisions regarding sex.
- Abstain or wait and test: While abstinence is a surefire way to avoid STIs (excluding situations when transmitted non-sexually, such as by needle sharing or through the mother), waiting before engaging in sexual acts with a partner and getting tested first is a great way to make sure both you and your partner are healthy.
What does a general STD Screening usually test?
Unlike common screenings, a general STD screening does not test for all STIs. Instead, laboratories usually offer a ‘general STD screening’ and an ‘advanced screening’ to allow patients to customize the price and tests included according to their risk factors. Additionally, different tests require different means. For example, Hepatitis and HIV are tested through a blood sample, while Chlamydia and Gonorrhea can only be tested through urine samples. A general STD screening will usually test for HIV, Hepatitis B and C, HPV, and Herpes. Additional screenings include Chlamydia and Gonorrhea.
What kind of STI tests are there?
STI tests vary depending on the STI and the specimen required for testing, which in turn depends on the sex of the tested individual. Below are the most common STI tests:
- Chlamydia and Gonorrhea tests: The Chlamydia and Gonorrhea tests are both Nucleic Acid Amplification Tests that require a urine sample, a vaginal swab in women, or a urethral swab in men.
- Syphilis test: A Syphilis test diagnoses the presence of the Treponema Pallidum bacterium, which causes Syphilis, in patient blood samples.
- Trichomonas test: Similar to Chlamydia and Gonorrhea tests in the specimen required for testing, the Trichomonas test checks for the presence of the Trichomonas Vaginalis parasite which causes Trichomoniasis.
- Human Papillomavirus test: An STI that only affects women, the HPV test is usually performed following an abnormal pap smear test. The infection is diagnosed by testing a swab of the patient’s cervical cells.
- Herpes test: The herpes test is performed by collecting a sample from the patient’s affected sore or blister. The test detects the presence of the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV).
- Hepatitis tests: Tests for Hepatitis B and C can test for the presence of the respective virus in patient blood samples.
- HIV test: The HIV test detects the presence of the human immunodeficiency virus in a collected blood sample.
What are the symptoms and treatments for common STIs?
Unfortunately, the most common symptom of an STI is no symptoms at all. Indeed, due to their invisibility during the early stages of infection, untreated STIs can cause severe complications before they are diagnosed:
- Heart disease
- In the case of undiagnosed HPV, cervical or rectal cancers
The best way to prevent complications from long-untreated STIs is to get annual (or more frequent) check-ups to stay on top of your sexual health.
For better (relatively) or worse, most STIs do present early-onset symptoms that are usually distinct and noticeable. As soon as you see any of the following symptoms, it is recommended to contact your healthcare provider immediately to receive accurate medical advice or a relevant STI test:
- HPV: An HPV infection, while one of the more hidden STIs, may cause warts in the genitals or surrounding skin.
- HIV: An onset of the HIV infection comes with a host of mild to severe symptoms, including headaches, nausea, fatigue, higher susceptibility to other ailments, ulcers, fever, and dry cough.
- Syphilis: Syphilis can cause rashes, ulcers, warts, and inflammation amongst other common symptoms.
- Hepatitis: Much like HPV, Hepatitis B and C may have no symptoms before they cause severe complications. At most, both STIs cause abdominal pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, and lethargy.
While most STIs are curable if diagnosed early on, all STIs can be managed with proper medication and prescribed treatment plans. However, since getting an STI once does not protect one from future infections, it is thus important to always remain cautious and safe when having sex.