We don’t often talk openly about getting tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). You may have some unanswered questions. This information will help you understand your choices so you can talk with your doctor.
What is an STI?
Sexually transmitted infections are diseases spread by sexual contact, including vaginal, anal and oral sex. Many STIs can also be passed from mother to baby during pregnancy and birth.1 Some of the most common STIs are:
- Genital herpes
- Genital warts (also known as human papillomavirus or HPV)
- Hepatitis B
- Human immunodeficiency virus (also known as HIV, which causes AIDS)
When should I get screened for STIs?
If you believe you’ve been exposed to an STI, you need to have a test as soon as possible. If you have symptoms of an STI, you should also be tested.2 Some STI tests are routinely recommended for pregnant people.
If you have a high risk of infection, health professionals recommend having a routine screening test for certain STIs. For example, you’re at high risk if you’re younger than 25 and sexually active, or if you’ve had more than one partner in the last year.2 You and your doctor should discuss your personal circumstances and how common STIs are where you live.
You may not need to be tested if you aren’t sexually active or you have a very low risk for infection.
But I feel fine
Some STIs don’t cause symptoms, or the symptoms may go away. A test may be the only way to know that you have an STI. STI testing can help find an infection early, so you can get treatment and avoid spreading the infection to others. If you’re pregnant, an STI test can help prevent the spread of the infection to your newborn.
Left untreated, some STIs can lead to serious problems. For example, certain high-risk types of HPV can cause cervical cancer in women, penile cancer in men, and rectal and oral cancer in men and women. Syphilis can cause problems with pregnancy, nerve and heart problems, and death.2
What are the risks of getting tested?
If your test shows that you have an STI, your sex partner(s) will need to know and get tested, which may affect your relationship. Your doctor may be required by law to report an STI to your local health department. You may be asked for names and addresses of your sex partners.2
In rare cases, you could have a false-positive test result, which shows that you have the disease when you actually don’t. This could cause unneeded worry and treatment.2
For syphilis, you could have a false-negative result, which shows that you don’t have the disease when you actually do.2 You might infect others because you don’t think you have the disease. This can also happen if you are tested too soon after you are infected. It is always best to discuss your results with your doctor to see if you may need to be tested again.
What are the tests for STIs?
Tests for STIs are fairly simple. If you have a test for chlamydia or gonorrhea, a nurse or doctor will test for bacteria that cause the infections. You may have a urine test, or the doctor may take a sample of body fluid from the throat, inside the tip of the penis, or inside the rectum or vagina. A gonorrhea culture test also may be done to see if the bacteria are resistant to antibiotics.
A syphilis test looks for antibodies to the bacteria that cause syphilis. Your doctor may do a blood test or may test body fluid or tissue. A follow-up test may be done to confirm the infection.
Where can I get tested?
Your primary care provider can provide testing or put in an order for the testing with a local lab. Many clinics provide confidential and free or low-cost testing.4 The Centers for Disease Control also has an online tool that can help you find a testing site near you.
What happens next?
If your test shows that you have an STI, your doctor can explain treatment options. Some of the most common STIs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, are caused by bacteria and can be cured with antibiotics.2 Other STIs are not curable, but treatment can help with symptoms.
How to stay healthy.
Take steps to avoid getting or spreading an STI. Make an appointment to speak with your doctor about getting tested. Using condoms consistently and correctly can reduce the risk of STIs.3 Getting vaccinated for HPV and hepatitis B is another important way to protect your health.3 You may also consider reducing your number of sexual partners or abstinence as additional prevention.
If you decide not to get tested now, think about getting tested in the future if your lifestyle changes or your risk for an STI increases.
- World Health Organization: Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Babylon Health: STI Testing: Should I Get Tested for a Sexually Transmitted Infection?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Sexually Transmitted Infections Treatment Guidelines, 2021
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Sexually Transmitted Disease (STDs), Which STD Tests Should I Get?