Many people think they would know if they had a sexually transmitted infection (STI). The truth is many STIs have no signs or symptoms in the majority of people infected. Or they have mild signs that can be easily overlooked. The only way to know if you have an STI is to get tested.
Anyone who is sexually active can get an STI. If you’ve had unprotected sex, have a new partner (or more than one partner), or for any reason are worried you have been exposed to an STI, talk to your healthcare provider about getting tested. While some providers might include STI tests as part of a regular check-up, others don’t test for any STIs unless you ask them to—so make sure to ask!
If you don’t have a regular healthcare provider, you can search for a clinic that offers testing near you. Just enter your zip code to find a local testing site.
How do STI tests work?
Getting tested can be quick and easy. Depending on what you’re being tested for, your provider may take a blood sample, a swab, or ask you to pee in a cup. Easy! Here’s an idea of what to expect for some more common STIs.
How the test is done: Swab of genital area or urine sample
What you also need to know: If you have had oral or anal sex, let your healthcare provider know this also. These sites may be infected, but vaginal or urine samples may not be positive.
How the test is done: Blood test or swab from inside of mouth
What you also need to know: Confidential and anonymous testing options are available in many clinics. The most common HIV tests look for antibodies to the virus. The time between infection and the development of detectable antibodies is called the window period. The window period varies from person to person and also depends upon the type of HIV test.
When a person has no symptoms
How the test is done: Blood test (drawn from arm or a fingerstick)
What you also need to know: Be sure to ask for a type-specific IgG test (not an IgM test)
When a person has symptoms
How the test is done: Swab of affected area; if at first negative for herpes, follow later with blood test to make sure.
What you also need to know: Must be done as soon as possible; “viral culture” test not as accurate after 48 hours. Viral culture also has high rate of false negatives. There is less chance of a false negative result with Nucleic Acid Amplification Testing (NAAT). NAATs are fast, accurate, and can tell if a person has HSV-1 or HSV-2.
How the test is done: Blood test, or sample taken from a sore.
What you also need to know: The CDC recommends all pregnant women be tested for syphilis.
How the test is done: Swab of infected area, physical exam or sample of discharge.
What you also need to know: “Trich” is harder to detect in men than in women.
Low-risk HPV (genital warts)
How the test is done: Visual diagnosis (for genital warts, caused by low-risk HPV)
What you also need to know: Warts can occur in both men and women.
High-risk HPV (cervical cancer)
How the test is done: Regular screening with Pap and/or HPV tests. See more here.
What you also need to know: Pap tests detect cervical cell changes, not HPV. HPV tests indicate infection with the virus itself. No test available for men for these types of HPV.
What Tests are Recommended for You?
What should you get tested for? When? How often? Below are testing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While these guidelines are general ones, you are an individual. The healthcare provider you visit may have different recommendations based on your individual health status and history.
CDC recommends yearly chlamydia testing of all sexually active women younger than 25 years, as well as older women with certain risk factors (those who have a new sex partner or multiple sex partners), and all pregnant women. Men should speak with their healthcare provider if they are at risk for chlamydia and if testing is recommended.
Podcast: Understanding STI Testing
We have an abundance of accurate, relatively inexpensive tests for STIs but the trick is engaging patients and health professionals so the proper tests are given to the right individuals.
In this episode of ASHA’s Sex+Health podcast, listen to J. Dennis Fortenberry, MD, MS, professor of pediatrics and medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine, discuss barriers to STI testing and what we can do to empower patients and providers alike.
Talk to a Partner about Getting Tested
See how easy it can be in this video from Planned Parenthood.