Learn more about STDs and how to get tested
When you visit with your provider to have your physical exam, you will also go over your sexual history. Based on your history your provider may order a variety of tests to check you for STIs, including blood tests, urine tests, swabs, or physical exams.
Different infections can require a different test. Even if you aren’t feeling any symptoms, it’s always a good idea to get checked if you have been sexually active.
Blood and urine tests
The majority of STIs can be tested for using urine or blood samples. Your doctor can order urine or blood tests to check for:
- Chlamydia – swab of genital area or urine sample
- Gonorrhea – swab of genital area or urine sample
- Hepatitis – physical exam and blood test to confirm
- Herpes (no symptoms) – blood test
- Herpes (with symptoms) – swab of the affected area within 48 hours of outbreak; if at first negative for herpes, follow later with a blood test
- HIV – blood test or swab from inside of the mouth. Confidential and anonymous testing options are available in many clinics.
- Syphilis – blood test, or sample taken from a sore
- HPV (genital warts) – visual diagnosis, can be present in men and women
- HPV (cervical cancer) – starting at age 21, women should be tested with a Pap test, which looks for cervical cell changes associated with cervical cancer. Starting t age 30, women should get an HPV test as well. No test available for men for these types of HPV.
In certain cases, urine and blood tests aren’t as accurate as other forms of testing. It may also take a month or longer after being exposed to certain STIs for blood tests to be reliable. If HIV is contracted, for example, it can take a couple of weeks to a few months for tests to detect the infection. This is because of your body needing time to product defensive agents against the virus.
Some may think this type of testing is a bit more invasive and not as pleasant as a blood or urine sample. Many doctors use vaginal, cervical, or urethral swabs to check for STIs. If you’re female, they can use a cotton applicator to take vaginal and cervical swabs during a pelvic exam. If you’re male or female, they can take urethral swabs by inserting a cotton applicator into your urethra. If you have anal sex, they may also take a rectal swab to check for infectious organisms in your rectum.
Pap smears and HPV testing
Strictly speaking, a Pap smear isn’t an STI test. A Pap smear is a test that looks for early signs of cervical or anal cancer. Women with persistent HPV infections, particularly infections by HPV-16 and HPV-18, are at an increased risk of developing cervical cancer. Women and men who engage in anal sex can also develop anal cancer from HPV infections.
A normal Pap smear result says nothing about whether or not you have an STI. To check for HPV, your doctor will order a separate HPV test. An abnormal Pap smear result doesn’t necessarily mean that you have, or will get, cervical or anal cancer. Many abnormal Pap smears resolve without treatment. If you have an abnormal Pap smear, your doctor may recommend HPV testing. If the HPV test is negative, it’s unlikely that you’ll develop cervical or anal cancer in the near future.
Some STIs, such as herpes and genital warts, can be diagnosed through a combination of physical examination and other tests. Your doctor can conduct a physical exam to look for sores, bumps, and other signs of STIs. They can also take samples from any questionable areas to send to a laboratory for testing.
It’s important to let your doctor know if you’ve noticed any changes on or around your genitals. If you engage in anal sex, you should also let them know about any changes on or around your anus and rectum.
STIs are common, and testing is widely available. The tests can vary; depending on which STIs your doctor is checking for. Talk to your doctor about your sexual history and ask which tests you should get. They can help you understand the potential benefits and risks of different STI tests.
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.