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You know what sexually transmitted infections are (STIs, also known as sexually transmitted diseases, STDs), you know you should be tested, but you still have more questions. Relax – you’re in good company! Sexual health can often feel complicated and confusing. Plus, most of us were never offered adequate sexual health education to help address all of our questions and concerns. Until 2009, federally funded sexual health education was almost exclusively focused on abstinence-only programing. So the standard curriculum makes getting information on STI testing a bit tricky. Even with the shift towards more evidence-based sex-ed in 2010, program curriculums are still far from holistic.
Without reliable information provided to us during our school ages, and wanting to avoid potentially uncomfortable conversations with our parents, we turn to the internet for answers that are often unhelpful or inaccurate. We sat down with binx’ Chief Medical Officer, Howard Heller, to get some answers: Who should be tested for STIs? What STIs should you be tested for? Where should you get tested for STIs? When should you get tested for STIs? And why should we be getting tested for STIs?
Who should be tested for STIs? “Anyone who is having sex or who has had sex could be at risk of having STIs and should be tested.” – Dr. Heller
In this context, sex refers to a wide variety of sexual contact. It can include – but is not limited to – oral sex, vaginal sex, and anal sex. Some STIs, like herpes and HPV, can even be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. The majority of STIs have no signs or symptoms. So, regardless of whether or not you feel fine, you could be harboring an infection and transmitting it to contacts. While engaging in certain behaviors, such as receptive anal sex or having many sexual contacts may increase your risk of contracting STIs, practicing safer sex does not make you immune. With potential health consequences as serious as infertility and cancer, it’s worth being tested even if your risk is relatively low.
What should people be tested for? “The decision about which tests to do and what to be tested for depends in large part on who somebody’s having sex with, how many partners, and what types of sex.” – Dr. Heller
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everybody 13-64 should be tested at least once for HIV. In addition, most women should be tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea at least once a year. On their website they outline more testing guidelines but, essentially, if you have sex, you should get tested. Depending on sexual practices, such as having sex without a condom or having multiple sexual contacts, many people should be getting tested more regularly than once a year. What exactly you get tested for is an individual decision that your healthcare provider can help you with. Due to costs and risks of false positives, more testing isn’t always better. Not trying to reveal your sex life to a doctor? Then go ahead and take binx’ quick online quiz and we can help point you in the right direction – no awkwardness necessary.
Where should somebody be tested?
People can be tested at their doctor’s office, government funded clinics, emergency rooms, or their own bedroom! It’s important to research the option you chose so that you’re aware of their payment options and STI testing offerings. Some establishments may only accept certain payment methods, or only offer certain tests. You don’t want to be blindsided when you’re already anxious about your testing, so check ahead of time.
When should somebody get tested? “For some people the answer is once in a lifetime, for others it may be once a year, and for some it might be more than that. The decision about when to get tested depends again on how many partners you have and what you’re doing with your partners.” – Dr. Heller
Many people like to get tested before engaging in sexual contact with a new person. That way they make sure that nobody involved is bringing an STI into the encounter. Alternatively, some people also like to get tested at the end of a relationship. With regards to the timing of testing after potential exposure, check out our blog on window periods to get a better sense of how long you should wait for the most accurate results.
Why should somebody get tested for sexually transmitted infections? “There are a couple of reasons. The first is to stay healthy and prevent complications that can happen as a result of untreated STIs…The other reason is to avoid transmission to others.”– Dr. Heller
Untreated STIs can cause a variety of negative health outcomes down the road. These consequences can occur even if somebody doesn’t currently have any symptoms. For instance, chlamydia is one of the most common preventable causes of infertility. In fact, the CDC estimates that 24,000 women become infertile each year due to untreated STIs. Don’t care about having children? Depending on the STI, untreated infections can also lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, cancer, or even neurological damage if not properly treated. By screening regularly and therefore diagnosing them early, you can prevent STIs from causing serious health issues later on.
An additional reason to be tested is to avoid infecting others with an STI. Over half of people with an STI do not have any symptoms. That means they likely don’t know they have it until they’re tested. However, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms, they can still transmit the infection to others. For these reasons, and your own peace of mind, there’s value in finding out if you have an STI. That way you can get tested, treated and protect potential sexual contacts.
Now that you know a bit more about why screening is important, it’s time to talk to your partner(s) about it. Get some helpful hints on how to start the conversation here.