If you have read some of the articles here at Scarleteen or looked through the boards, you know that getting yourself screened for Sexually Transmitted Diseases or Infections (STIs) is essential.
Whether you are with a new partner, or are already in a sexual relationship, getting a full STI -- sexually transmitted infection, sometimes also called STDs -- screening can give you peace of mind and ensure your physical well-being as well as your partners.
Often people ask us if they need to be worried about STIs or STI testing if they haven't ever had sexual contact with another person. The answer is yes, yes, and yes. Sexually Transmitted Disease means that the disease CAN be transmitted sexually not that it can ONLY be transmitted sexually, and when it comes to STIs, both partners' histories are an issue, not just that of one.
Plus, there are some STIs that are often transmitted through non-sexual contact. Oral herpes, otherwise known as cold sores, is one that often runs in families because it is so easy to catch that when one family member gets it, it's very common for other members of the family to catch it from them in completely nonsexual ways. In fact, the majority of people with oral herpes, which can also be passed on genitally, got it as children in a totally nonsexual way.
STIs can affect you for the rest of your life. They can affect your future fertility and your very existence: a couple can be fatal. Several of them cannot be cured. But many of them ARE easily treated, and when treated early, can leave you with no long-term health problems. Using latex barriers -- condoms, dental dams and/or gloves -- can vastly reduce your risks of most STIs, but that's only one part of safer sex practice: testing is another and is just as important. So, for many reasons, getting tested is important. Have I made my point? OK, read on to learn more.
What exactly does STD/STI testing entail?
STI testing includes a few simple tests that can be done in your doctor's office or at a clinic. They may be slightly uncomfortable, but they are not more than that. It's really pretty minor.
The first part is an interview. The clinician or doctor will ask you some questions regarding your exposure to STIs and about your sexual activities and sexual history. This may make you feel uncomfortable. Do not be embarrassed or ashamed believe me, doctors, nurses, and clinicians have heard and seen it all. It is very important that you be honest with your doctor, so they can do their job to get you the care you need. If you have had unsafe sex, accept it and take responsibility for it when you talk to your doctor.
If you are experiencing any health problems or symptoms of any STIs, tell your doctor about them in detail: how long have you been having the problem? How frequently? Has it gotten worse or better since it started? All this information can help them give you a proper diagnosis.
You may not be having any health problems or symptoms of any diseases when you go in for your test. That may mean that you simply don't have any infections or diseases. It can also mean that you simply don't have symptoms that are noticeable. Many STIs have no symptoms, particularly in their early stages. One of the ones that is easiest to miss -- and one of the most common infections -- is Chlamydia, which is called "the silent STI" because many people who have it never know until it's too late, and they have already begun to have serious complications due to inflammation and scarring. That's why it's important to get a full STI screening anyway, even if you don't have any symptoms.
Next, the clinician will do a visual examination of your genitals. S/he will be looking for evidence of sores or lesions. If you are a woman you will go through the same procedure as you would for a pelvic exam (you might want to read up on that in the Your First Gynecologist Visit article for more details). During the pelvic exam the doctor will take a small sample of cells and fluids called a smear or swab test. It is similar to a PAP smear test, except that in this case, when the technician or doctor looks at the cells through a microscope, she or he will be looking for signs of the various microorganisms, antibodies, or cell changes related to specific STIs.
What about guys?
If you're a guy, the clinician still often needs to do a swab test. This means taking a swab from the inside of your urethra, the tube that runs all the way down the middle of your penis, where urine and semen come out. The clinician gently inserts a thin cotton-tipped swab into the urethra to get a sample of cells. Most of the guys we know who have had this done say that it is slightly painful, but only for a moment or two on a scale from 1 (nothing) to 10 (being kicked in the crotch), it's about a 4. The cells gathered this way will be examined under a microscope, just like they would be for a woman.
The clinician may also take a sample of cells from your throat and/or rectum. These are swab tests, too, and are likewise done with a long cotton swab. Having one done in your throat is a lot like getting a throat culture done to test for strep throat in fact, it's the same procedure, only they look for different things in the lab. As for a rectal (butt) examination, the clinician will do a visual examination as well as sampling of cells. Again, it is not terribly uncomfortable, but it can feel kind of vulnerable or embarrassing. It is better if you try to relax, though, since you being relaxed makes it much easier for the clinician, and thus much more comfortable for you.
Depending on the testing the clinician has ordered for you, you may also be asked for a saliva sample, urine sample, blood sample, or any combination of these. Depending on the clinic or doctor you may or may not be given them all. Chances are you will be given a blood test as it is the most common way to test for HIV and syphilis.
Common sexually transmitted diseases and infections and testing procedures