Sexually transmitted diseases remain one of the most common health challenges in the United States.
According to estimates from the Center for Disease Control, the United States sees about 20 million new sexually transmitted infections every year, half of which occur among those age 15 to 24.
STDs comprise any disease or infection transmitted through sex. These diseases are caused by bacteria, viruses, and fungi and often pass from one person to another through certain bodily fluids, usually blood, semen, pre-seminal fluids, and vaginal fluids.
Medication and increased condom use have allowed for increased protection, but unsafe sex puts you at a high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
The best way of ensuring that STDs do not damage your health in the short- and long-term is to get tested, but not many people know how often they should get tested.
Let’s take a closer look at how often you need to get tested for STDs.
A Note on Condoms
While they are most often considered for birth control, condoms are extremely effective at preventing most sexually transmitted diseases. Condoms act as a barrier for STDs that are spread through bodily fluids, protecting both the person wearing the condom and their sexual partner.
However, some sexually transmitted diseases can be spread or contracted via skin-to-skin contact even when a condom is used. This happens when your skin makes contact with an infected area on your partner’s body that is not covered by a condom, like the scrotum or labia. Some STDs that you can still contract with condom use include:
- Human papillomavirus (HPV)
- Molluscum contagiosum
- Pubic lice and crabs
That said, you should use a condom every single time you have oral, vaginal, and anal sex. They are the best first defense against sexually transmitted diseases. Learn to put a condom on properly, and use a condom before you even begin any sort of sexual act to properly prevent STDs. Condoms and tests are the best way to protect your health and detect any potential infections before they become an issue to your health.
Recommendations for STD and HIV Screenings
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer pretty simple, easy-to-follow recommendations for regular STD screenings:
- Everyone should be tested at least once for HIV between the ages of 13 and 64.
- Sexually active women younger than 25 should be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia annually.
- Women who are older than 25 and have high risk factors, multiple sex partners or a sex partner with an STD, should be screened for chlamydia and gonorrhea every year.
- All sexually active gay and bisexual men should be screened at least once a year for chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea.
- Gay and bisexual men who have anonymous or multiple partners should be screened more frequently, about once every 3 to 6 months.
- To protect both mother and child, all pregnant women should be screened for HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis B. All at-risk pregnant women should be tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea in the early stages of pregnancy with repeat screening as necessary.
- Sexually active gay and bisexual men should be tested for HIV every 3 to 6 months.
- Anyone who shares injection drug needles or engages in unsafe sex should be tested for HIV at least once a year.
Getting Tested When You Need It
While it’s important to keep up with regular STD tests, you shouldn’t wait to get tested. Simply put, you should get tested for STDs when you need it. If you are sexually active—even if you always wear protection and only have one partner—you should be screened at some point in your life.
You should also get tested if you notice any signs or symptoms of a potential sexually transmitted disease or infection. Signs and symptoms of STDs in men and women differ from infection to infection. However, if you are wondering how to tell if you have an STD, some common symptoms you can look for include:
- Bumps, sores, blisters, and warts around the genitals, mouth, or anus
- Swollen, red genitals
- Jaundice (a yellowing of the skin)
- A sudden inexplicable skin rash
- Loose stools
- Weight loss
- Discharge from the genitals
- Pain during sex
- Vaginal bleeding outside of normal periods
- Flu-like symptoms (fever, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, general aches)
- Burning, painful sensation when you pee
Furthermore, sometimes, you may not experience any STD symptoms until the infection has progressed to a more severe stage, so you can’t always trust the way you look or feel as an accurate gauge. Even if you feel fine, you should get an STD screening if:
- You are having unprotected sex. If you have had unprotected sex of any kind (oral, anal, vaginal) with a new partner, you should absolutely get tested. Alternately, if you and your partner are in a mutually monogamous relationship and want to stop using condoms, you should both get tested beforehand to ensure that you are safe and good to go.
- You have multiple partners. If you are in an open relationship or otherwise not in a mutually monogamous relationship, you should consider getting screened regularly, about every six months or so depending on your own situation. If your partner has HIV, hepatitis B or C, or any other long-term infection, you should get screened more frequently.
- You have had past sexually transmitted infections. Those who have had STDs or STIs in the past are often more likely to get an STD again. If you are sexually active, get tested about 3 months after you were treated for your initial STD.
- Your partner has an STD. If your partner has an STD or has recently had an STD, you need to get tested to make sure that you do not have that same virus or bacteria in your system.
STD Incubation Periods
What makes detecting STDs even more difficult to nail down is that some have longer incubation periods than others. That means that, while the virus or bacteria may be in your system, it could take several months for it to actually grow, spread, and make itself known. An STD screening may not even detect it if it hasn’t fully incubated.
Incubation periods differ depending on the STD, meaning you may have to get tested more than once to confirm the results. Some common STDs and their incubation periods:
What to Expect from STD Testing
STD testing can be scary and intimidating. Try to relax and realize that you’re doing a smart, good thing. You’re taking care of your own health.
Talk to your doctor or a nurse about getting tested. It’s not usually a part of regular checkups or even gynecologist examinations. Be open and honest with your doctor. Letting your doctor know your sexual history and details of your sex life can help them figure out what tests will best work for your needs.
Just remember that doctors have seen it all, and considering that a majority of people contract some STD at some point in their lives means that your doctors are probably used to it. If you do not feel comfortable, consider seeking help from a local clinic or health center.
To help your doctor figure out what you need to be screened for, you should tell them about:
- Any symptoms you may be experiencing
- Any history of STDs you or your partner may have had
- The kind of sex you have had (anal, vaginal, oral)
- The number of people you have had sex with
- How often you use condoms, dental dams, and other forms of protection
- Any behaviors, like sharing needles, that may increase your chances of contracting certain STIs
From there, your doctor will determine the actual tests you need. There is no one test that is used for determining all STDs, but some of the processes are the same. Most start with a physical examination, which allows your doctor to see any sores, bumps, or other physically apparent symptoms.
Your doctor may take a urine sample or samples of fluid from any sores or blisters you may have. It’s also common for doctors to take a cheek swab or use a swab to take samples from your genitals, urethra, cervix, anus, or throat. Your doctor may also take a blood test by either taking blood from your arm simply pricking your finger.
What to Do When You Get Your Results
It may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to get the results for your test. For some tests, your doctor may be able to tell you immediately if you have an STD. For example, many clinics offer rapid testing for HIV, which can return results in 20 minutes. If you do not hear back from your doctor about your test results, do not assume that you are STD-free. Call your doctor to make sure of your results.
If your results come out as negative, you have nothing to worry about, though if you still have symptoms, you should ask your doctor for other tests. You may not be dealing with an STD, but you could still be sick.
If the results say that you do have an STD, take some time to take a breath and calm yourself. Finding out you have an STD can make you feel scared, mad, upset, or embarrassed, but understand that it happens to just about everyone. You are not alone, and you’ll be okay.
Nearly all STDs can be cured with the right medication, so follow your doctor’s orders on proper treatment. Take the full course of the treatment to completely eliminate the infection. You may also need to return to your doctor to get retested after the treatment has finished.
Even with STDs that can’t be cured, there are a wide range of medicines and treatment options that can ease symptoms, prevent transmission, and suppress the infection so that it has next to no effect on your life. There are millions of people who live with STDs, have sex, have relationships, and maintain rich lives.
PlushCare provides in-depth testing and experienced care for all patients. Our knowledgeable team of doctors can provide diagnosis, treatment, and prescriptions for a wide range of sexually transmitted diseases. If you think you have an STD or are wondering how to tell if you have an STD, book an appointment with one of our doctors today.