April is STD Awareness Month, an annual observance to raise public awareness about the impact of STDs on the lives of Americans and the importance of preventing, testing for, and treating STDs. It is an opportunity to normalize routine STD testing and conversations about sexual health. If you’re sexually active, particularly with multiple partners, you’ve probably heard the following advice many times: Use protection and get tested. This is important because a person can have a sexually transmitted disease without knowing it.
But what types of STI testing do you need? And how often should you be screened? The answers depend on your age, your sexual behaviors and other risk factors. In many cases, there aren’t any signs or symptoms. In fact, that’s why many experts prefer the term sexually transmitted infections (STIs), because you can have an infection without disease symptoms. Don’t assume that you’re receiving STI testing every time you have a gynecologic exam or Pap test. If you think you need STI testing, request it from your doctor. Talk to your doctor about your concerns and what tests you’d like or need.
Many people with gonorrhea and chlamydia don’t have symptoms. Why does this matter? Because an untreated infection can lead to serious and permanent health problems, even if you never have symptoms. Gonorrhea and chlamydia can be cured with the right medicine from your doctor. Just make sure you take all of your medicine exactly as your doctor tells you to. Chlamydia and gonorrhea screening is done either through a urine test or through a swab inside the penis in men or from the cervix in women. The sample is then analyzed in a laboratory.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages HIV testing, at least once, as a routine part of medical care if you’re an adolescent or adult between the ages of 13 and 64. Younger teens should be tested if they have a high risk of an STI. The CDC advises yearly HIV testing if you are at high risk of infection. Hepatitis C screening is recommended for everyone born between 1945 and 1965. The incidence of hepatitis C is high in this age group, and the disease often has no symptoms until it’s advanced. Vaccines are available for both hepatitis A and B if screening shows you haven’t been exposed to these viruses.
Your doctor tests you for syphilis by taking either a blood sample or a swab from any genital sores you might have. No good screening test exists for herpes, a viral infection that can be transmitted even when a person doesn’t have symptoms. Your doctor may take a tissue scraping or culture of blisters or early ulcers, if you have them, for examination in a laboratory. But a negative test doesn’t rule out herpes as a cause for genital ulcerations. Type 2 is the virus that causes genital sores more often. Certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer while other varieties of HPV can cause genital warts. Many sexually active people become infected with HPV at some point in their lives, but never develop symptoms. The virus typically disappears within two years.
If you test positive for an STI, the next step is to consider further testing and then get treatment as recommended by your doctor. In addition, inform your sex partners. Your partners need to be evaluated and treated, because you can pass some infections back and forth. Expect to feel various emotions. You may feel ashamed, angry or afraid. It may help to remind yourself that you’ve done the right thing by getting tested so that you can inform your partners and get treated. Talk with your doctor about your concerns.