News flash: Safer-sex is the new sexy! Being sexually responsible is part of having a healthy sex life, and it sure beats the alternative - and the consequences that come with it. What being sexually responsible entails is understanding your risks and knowing how to reduce them.
One key step people often overlook in this department is getting tested for STDs. If you're having sex, you really should get tested, because all STDs can be present without showing signs or symptoms. That means the only way to really know if you have one is to get tested before and after each new partner, or at the very least once a year as part of your comprehensive safer-sex routine. It’s as easy as having your teeth cleaned, getting a pap smear, or having your triglycerides checked. And trust me, it does not have to be painful. In fact, it should be like what going bra-less was for women in the '70s: liberating!
So, Why Aren’t More People Getting Tested?One of the main reasons people don’t get tested for STDs as often as they should is because of the prospect of actually going to get tested. It’s no wonder, really. The thought of sitting in a waiting room where everyone knows what you’re there for, and having to answer questions about your sex life you’d rather not share with strangers is enough to put many people off. And the procedures themselves - EGAD! Those send many more people running for the hills. The truth, however, is that while STD testing is not necessarily a Saturday afternoon picnic in the park, it isn't painful or awful either.
First, you should know that STD testing is done in many different ways. The type of test - or tests - you need will vary depending on your age, sex, sexual history, and which STD you’re getting tested for. Remember, there is no single test that can screen for all STDs and not all STDs are screened for in a comprehensive STD panel. Fortunately, thanks to some procedural updates, innovative technology, and the really nice people who operate testing clinics, incorporating STD tests as part of your healthy sex life is virtually painless - and much less awkward than it's ever been before. (Learn more about STDs in The Shocking Truth About STDs.)
Where Can I Get Tested?Whether you choose to go to your regular doctor’s office or a local testing clinic, the good news is that those in the waiting room with you might not be there for the same reason. Most clinics, and especially family doctors, see patients for a myriad of different reasons and tests. Even though it may feel like you’re on parade sitting there to be tested (read: judged), for all the other people in the waiting room know, you're there for the sniffles.
Consider this: even if you’re at a clinic that provides nothing but STD testing, you’re sitting there with other sexually responsible people just like you. So maybe they know you're getting tested for STDs. So what? Just remind yourself that you’re all doing the right thing by being there. If you want, you can even share a knowing nod and a thumbs-up with the other patrons.
If you're sexually active, not getting tested just isn't an option. If the prospect of sitting in a waiting room is just too daunting to fathom, there are also some great online services that allow you to test in a more private, discreet environment. No excuses. Get tested! (For tips on how to protect yourself in the first place, read The Ultimate Guide to Safer Sex.)
The Testing ProcedureAt a clinic or a doctor’s office the procedure is very similar. The staff will usually start by asking you questions about your risk factors, such as what sexual activities you’ve recently engaged in, whether you've had new partners, and what types of barriers you've used. This is where you want to be as forthcoming as possible. Sure, it can be awkward, but remember that these are professionals who have sexual health conversations regularly. There are very few things you can say that will shock them. Plus, their professional etiquette bars them from imposing judgment. They're there to help you stay healthy - and keep your partners healthy as well.
Types of TestsAfter assessing what infections you are at risk for, it's time to determine which tests and procedures are best suited for you. Your test(s) may include:
A Physical Exam
Your health care provider may examine you for any signs of an infection, such as a rash, discharge, sores, or bumps. This usually takes place if you are presently experiencing symptoms. For women, the exam can be similar to a pelvic exam, but it’s important to know that traditional pelvic exams or pap smears do not typically test for STDs. So, even if you’ve had a recent pelvic exam, you should still get tested for STDs separately.
Although free or low-cost clinics, like your local health department, often perform tests for STDs alongside a yearly exam, most private doctors do not. Therefore, even though you may think you’ve been tested for STDs during your annual pap smear, it’s still quite possible that you haven’t actually been tested at all.
A Urine Sample
You may be asked to pee into a cup. This one's easy...well, for the guys, anyway. I usually make a game out of deciding whether to pull my pants up or waddle to the sink to wash my pee-splashed hands first. Of all the colorful infographics at doctor’s offices, I’ve yet to see one that helps you navigate the pee in a cup, pants at ankles, wash your hands conundrum. Maybe it’s just me?
Genital Discharge, Tissues, Cells, or Oral Fluid Samples
Your provider will use a swab to collect samples from around your genitals that will be looked at under a microscope. Guys, this is not to be confused with a swab inserted into the penis. That method of testing is no longer necessary (whew!).
A blood sample can be done either with a typical needle or by pricking the skin (often the tip of the finger) to draw drops of blood. The initial poke is relatively painless, but if you’re a bit squeamish about needles, you might choose to look the other way. Some of the finger pokes administered via rapid tests for HIV are even less daunting; the needle is usually smaller, and they don’t require as much blood for testing.
Diagnosis and Leaving with a Good FeelingSometimes a diagnosis can be made based on symptoms or a physical exam. In those cases, treatment can often be prescribed right away, should you need it. Other times, your tests may have to be sent away to a lab. In those cases, waiting for results can be stressful. Rather than sitting at home wringing your hands, take action. Don’t assume you tested negative if you don’t hear back; in cases where samples are sent out to labs, you have to check back for both positive and negative results, so be sure to follow up!
From there, it’s important to keep track of what you were tested for. You should always ask what tests your doctor has performed, and don’t hesitate to ask to be tested for additional infections should you like to know your status for those as well. You are your own best advocate for your sexual health, so stand up for yourself. After all, being healthy is sexy, and while the testing experience can be trying, it'll get easier with time. It'll also leave you feeling empowered and in control of your sexual health. Job well done! (Learn more about STDs in 7 Not-So-Deadly Myths About STDs.)