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What to Know About STI Testing


Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) often have no symptoms but can still spread to others and cause serious health complications. A critical way for sexually active people to protect themselves and their partners is by getting tested for STIs. Testing can be done using blood, urine, or swabs and is the only way to confirm if a person has an infection.

Why is STI testing necessary?

There are many reasons why sexually active people should get tested for STIs, even when in a faithful relationship. First, a person can have an STI without knowing it. That’s because STIs don’t cause symptoms in all people or may only cause mild infections that go unnoticed.

Second, STIs can spread even if the infected partner has no symptoms. And while safe-sex practices such as using male or female condoms can prevent most STIs, condoms aren’t 100% effective. So, a person can get an STI even with correct and consistent condom use.

Another reason testing is important is that STIs can cause infections that are easily confused with other illnesses. For example, early HIV and syphilis infections can cause flu-like symptoms. That means the only way to know for sure that you have an STI is to get tested.

Finally, testing is critical to getting proper treatment. Once treated, STIs are less likely to spread to others or cause severe health issues like pregnancy complications, infertility, or cancer.

What signs warn about an STI?

It’s not always easy to identify an STI since there are dozens of different STIs, and many people don’t develop symptoms. Additionally, some symptoms only affect the genitals and reproductive organs, while others affect the whole body. If they are present, symptoms of STIs vary depending on the type (bacterial or viral) and location of the infection.

In general, symptoms that affect the genitals and reproductive organs commonly include:

  • Unusual discharge from the vagina, penis, or anus
  • Painful or frequent urination
  • Sores or bumps near the genitals, anus, or mouth
  • Itching or burning in the vagina, penis, or anus
  • Abnormal bleeding or odor from the vagina
  • Pain in the pelvic area
  • Painful bowel movements
  • Pain during sex

Symptoms that affect the whole body may include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Skin rashes
  • Body or muscle aches
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Sore throat
  • Weight loss
  • Headaches

How quickly do symptoms appear?

The amount of time it takes for STI symptoms to appear after sexual contact varies widely depending on the specific STI. For example, with bacterial STIs such as gonorrhea or chlamydia, symptoms typically occur a few days or weeks after exposure to an STI. In these cases, it may be easier for a person to recognize the connection between their sexual activity and the symptoms. For viral STIs such as HPV, it can take months to develop any symptoms.

What is the testing process?

Individuals who are sexually active and concerned that they may have an STI should schedule an evaluation with a healthcare provider for immediate testing and treatment. Based on their assessment, the provider will recommend the tests, if any, that are right for you.

The evaluation may include the following:

  • A physical examination
  • A medical history, including sexual history, to assess the risk of infection
  • An explanation of the testing process, including the tests that may be relevant to the suspected infection and the meaning of the test results
  • Any relevant STI tests
  • An explanation of any necessary treatments or procedures

Sometimes, a visual examination is enough to tell whether a person has an STI. In these cases, the provider may provide a preliminary diagnosis while waiting to get test results back from the lab. They may also suggest getting tested for HIV and other STIs because it’s possible to have more than one STI, and having one makes it more likely to have others.

What tests can diagnose STIs?

Various tests are available to diagnose common STIs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, genital herpes, genital HPV, HIV, and trichomoniasis. The type of tests that are done depend on the suspected infection and usually include one or more of the following;

  • Blood test: This involves taking a blood sample from a vein in your arm and sending it to a lab. Blood tests can diagnose syphilis, HIV, and sometimes herpes.
  • Urine test: This involves providing a urine sample in a cup. Urine tests can diagnose chlamydia, gonorrhea, and sometimes trichomoniasis.
  • Swab test: This involves using a swab to take a sample from the site of infection. Samples may be taken from the vagina, cervix, penis, urethra, rectum, or throat. Swab tests can diagnose HPV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and trichomoniasis.

Depending on the test, results may be available immediately or take a few days or weeks to process. It’s essential to wait for all the test results before resuming sexual activity.

Conclusion

Healthcare providers can diagnose many common STIs using blood, urine, and swab tests. But having an open conversation about your sexual history and asking for STI testing is the only way to ensure you receive the right tests. By learning to recognize STI symptoms and getting tested regularly, individuals can improve their overall health and help prevent the spread of STIs.

If you are sexually active, ask your healthcare provider to test you for STIs. Ask your sex partner to get tested, too. If you are uncomfortable talking with your regular provider about STIs, there are clinics available that provide free or low-cost testing and treatment.

Key takeaways

A person can have an STI and not know it because STIs don’t always cause symptoms. If STI symptoms are present, they vary depending on the specific infection.

STI testing is the only way to confirm an infection and get the right treatment, which helps prevent health complications and the spread of STIs.

Depending on the type of infection, healthcare providers use a variety of tests to diagnose common STIs, including blood, urine, and swab tests.

Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Infections.

National Library of Medicine – MedlinePlus. Sexually Transmitted Diseases.

National Library of Medicine – MedlinePlus. STD Tests.

UpToDate. Screening for Sexually Transmitted Infections.

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