Knowing when, where, how, and why you should get tested for an STI can help you live a happy and healthy sexually active life.
Getting tested for an STI is part of a normal and healthy life. Getty Images
Today it’s more important than ever to be aware of the risks related to sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
There are around 20 million new cases of STIs in the United States each year, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — a record high that amounts to a public health crisis.
In addition to these rising rates, diseases like gonorrhea are becoming resistant to antibiotics and harder to treat.
There are a variety of reasons for this nationwide increase in STIs. The opioid crisis (substance use can lead to riskier sexual behavior) is a factor. So is the stigma toward STIs and the decrease in resources for public education and testing.
To help turn the tide on these rising rates, Healthline spoke with Courtney Benedict, the associate director of medical standards implementation at Planned Parenthood, about the 14 basic things every person should know before getting tested.
- Everyone needs to get tested for STIs
Anyone who’s sexually active needs testing. No one can be too young or too old to get tested if they’re sexually active.
- How often you should get tested depends on your risk factors
Younger people have a higher risk for STIs. Of the 20 million new STI cases in the country each year, half occur among ages 15 to 24, reports the CDC.
Young people in this demographic should get tested annually for chlamydia and gonorrhea. Everyone should be tested at least once in their lifetime for HIV.
Certain groups — like men who have sex with men — have a higher risk for HIV than the general population. Sexually active gay and bi men should get tested every year, twice a year, or more depending on the number of partners and encounters they have.
Keep in mind that most STIs won’t be detected immediately after a sexual encounter. The “window period” when infections are undetectable can last from one week to several months.
Consult the CDC’s website for more information on testing windows and frequency.
- Get on PrEP if you’re at risk for HIV, and test more often and use condoms if you’re on PrEP
Those with known risk factors for HIV should consider going on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). It’s a daily treatment that’s more than 90 percent effective in preventing HIV if used correctly, according to the CDC.
People on PrEP should get tested for HIV and other STIs every three months. Condoms should be used as part of a toolkit of safe sex to prevent STIs other than HIV.
“Every one of our health centers offer treatment for STIs,” said Dr. Leana Wen, president of Planned Parenthood. “We also offer PrEP, a daily pill that helps those at high risk of HIV reduce their risk of getting infected, in more than 400 health centers across 44 states.
“If you don’t have HIV, taking PrEP consistently every day can lower your chances of getting HIV by more than 90 percent. Many of our health centers also offer PEP, a series of pills you can take if you’ve been exposed to HIV that lowers your chances of getting it.”
Ultimately, a physician can determine any risk factors and advise on how often to get tested or on PrEP if necessary.
- Honestly is the best policy
Hiding information related to symptoms from your physician can be harmful for a patient, as it could lead to undiagnosed STIs.
“It’s important to be as open and honest as possible with your health provider so that they can help you,” Benedict said. “If you’re not honest with us, then we may not be recommending all of the tests that are appropriate for you.”
- Getting tested is normal and necessary
STIs are much more common than many people think. Some research shows that as many as 75 percent of adults will contract human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common STI, within their lifetimes.
Screening for STIs is just a part of normal healthcare — for everyone.
- Prevention is the best medicine
Practicing safe sex — using tools like condoms and PrEP — will prevent STIs and reduce your risk (and stress) for contracting one.
- Know where to get tested, how much it costs, and how long it will take
There are many different places where a person can get tested for STIs, including a primary care physician, a health clinic, the health department, and Planned Parenthood health centers.
Testing is often free or can be done for a low cost, depending on the testing site and the patient’s income and health insurance.
A doctor’s appointment is usually the easiest place to start. Also check Planned Parenthood’s directory or the CDC for a nearby center.
There are also a number of at-home tests available, but not all are reliable. Consult the Food and Drug Administration’s database for a list of approved kits.
The time in the waiting room — and for test results — varies by testing site. The average wait time at a Planned Parenthood health center is 15 minutes to an hour, estimates Benedict.
Depending on the type of test, some results will be available immediately. Others can take one to two weeks.
- Don’t self-diagnose from unreliable internet sources
There’s a lot of unverified information and myths floating around on the internet. So, when Googling about risk factors and symptoms of STIs, turn to the best sources available.
In addition to verified sites like Healthline, the CDC has the nation’s most reliable facts and figures on the subject. Or better yet, ask your doctor in person when you get tested.
- Don’t stress — even if the result is positive, the STI is treatable
Many people worry they have an STI before finding out the results. Don’t. “You’re not alone. We’re here to help you,” Benedict said.
“All of the sexually transmitted infections that you might be getting tested for potentially are treatable — even HIV,” assured Benedict.
With medication, people living with HIV are “able to lead normal lives,” she says. But getting tested and knowing your status is essential for getting on the path toward better health and avoiding transmitting the virus to others.
Planned Parenthood health centers also have onsite counselors to help with stress and mental health issues.
- Anxious about results? There’s an app for that
Many health centers are now embracing technology to reduce stress for patients.
Services like Healthvana — now available in clinics in more than a dozen states — deliver results immediately and electronically via a smartphone app.
“Instead of hearing the anxiety-provoking ‘No news is good news, we’ll only call you if something is wrong’ after being tested, we work with HIV/STI testing clinics to deliver your lab results as soon as they are released. And we send them to your mobile phone in a way that’s easy to understand and figure out what to do next, if anything,” said Ramin Bastani, CEO of Healthvana.
“This is especially relevant for patients on PrEP who are required to come back for testing every three months in order to get their next prescription,” he said.
- Talk to your partner(s)
If you test positive for an STI, you’ll need to notify your sexual partners (this is anyone you’ve had sex with in the past six months) so they can get testing and treatment.
But a conversation about sexual health shouldn’t begin or end there. Ideally, it should happen before sex.
“Talk to your partner about protection, and talk to them about their sexual behaviors. It’ll be a little uncomfortable at first, but it can actually help you make decisions about whether you want to engage in sexual activity with someone based on their risk factors,” Benedict said.
Good communication will reduce your risk for STIs and your worries about getting them.
- Nervous about ‘the talk’ with your partner? Get tested together
“Sometimes it’s easiest to just bring your partner in and have them talk to the doctor or nurse with you,” Benedict said.
Additionally, if you’ve already tested positive for an STI, you’ll need a plan — and getting your partner an appointment for testing is the best way to show you care.
- There’s no shame in getting an STI
Getting an STI “doesn’t make anyone less good, less valuable, less worthy of love,” Benedict said.
“The idea that people with sexually transmitted infections are undesirable really has a profound emotional impact on people diagnosed,” she stressed.
“We really are trying to destigmatize sexually transmitted infections so we’re not fueling that fire, so that people don’t feel… discouraged to come in and get tested and get treated,” Benedict said.
- Don’t be afraid of sex
“Everyone deserves a sex life that’s healthy, safe, enjoyable,” Benedict said. “And getting as comfortable as possible [by] talking to your partners and to your healthcare provider about sexually transmitted infections can make your sex even more enjoyable.”
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