[I]f you’ve never had an STI test, you’re probably imagining it’s a horrendously awkward experience where a mean, judgmental doctor pokes around your nether regions.
But like getting a needle or going to your first workout in a while, it’s one of those things that seems much worse in your mind than it is in reality.
For starters, often you don’t even have to pull down your pants.
“If someone comes in for a routine test for sexually transmissible infections (STIs) and they don’t have any symptoms, they usually don’t need a genital examination,” Dr Vincent Cornelisse, a spokesperson for the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, told Coach.
“The tests that are ordered will depend on that person’s risk of STIs – some people only need a urine test, some need a self-collected anal or vaginal swab, and some people need a blood test.
“We aim to make this process as hassle-free as possible, in order to encourage people to have ongoing regular testing for STIs.”
Cornelisse says the embarrassment and stigma that some of us still feel about getting an STI test is unnecessary.
“STIs have been around for as long as people have been having sex, so getting an STI is nothing to be ashamed about, it’s a normal part of being human.
“Getting an STI test is an important part of maintaining good health for anyone who is sexually active.”
If you’re yet to have an STI test or it’s been a long time, here’s what you need to know.
How often do you need an STI test?
On average it’s good to get an STI test once a year, but some people should go more often.
“Some people are more affectionate than others, so some need to test every three months – obviously, if someone has symptoms that suggest that they may have an STI, then a physical examination is an important part of their assessment.”
As a general rule, people under 30, men who have sex with men, and people who frequently have new sexual partners should go more often.
To get an STI test ask your GP, or find a sexual health clinic in your area – the Family Planning Alliance Australia website can help you locate one.
What happens at the test?
As Cornelisse mentioned, the doctor will ask you some questions to determine which tests you need, whether it’s a urine test, blood test or genital inspection.
You’ll be asked questions about your sexual orientation, the number of sexual partners you’ve had, your sexual practices (like whether you’ve had unprotected sex), whether you have any symptoms, whether you have injected drugs, and whether you have any tattoos or body piercings.
Your results will be sent away and returned in about one week.
What if you test positive?
There’s no reason to panic if your results show you have an STI – if anything, you should feel relieved, Cornelisse says.
“If you hadn’t had the test, you wouldn’t have realised you had an STI and you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to treat it.
“Most STIs are easily treatable, and the other ones can be managed very well with modern medicine. So don’t feel shame, feel proud – you’re adulting!”
You’ll need to tell your recent sexual partners. While it might be a little awkward, they’ll ultimately appreciate you showing that you care about them.
“People often stress about this, but in my experience people appreciate it if their sexual partner has bothered to tell them about an STI – it shows them that you respect them,” Cornelisse says.
“Also, if this is a sexual partner who you’re likely to have sex with again, not telling them means that you’re likely to get the same STI again.”
The risks of leaving an STI untreated
You can probably think of 400 things you’d rather do than go for an STI test, but the earlier a sexually transmitted infection is caught, the better.
A recent spate of “super-gonorrhea” – a strain of the disease resistant to normal antibiotics –can result in fertility problems, but people who contract it show no symptoms, meaning getting tested is the only way to know you have it, and treat it.
“Untreated STIs can cause many serious problems,” Cornelisse warns.
“For women, untreated chlamydia can cause pelvic scarring, resulting in infertility and chronic pelvic pain.
“Syphilis is making a comeback, and if left untreated can cause many different problems, including damage to the brain, eyes and heart.
“If HIV is left untreated it will result in damage to the immune system — resulting in life-threatening infections and cancers — which is called AIDS.”
There is a long-term treatment for AIDS, but this depends on it being caught early.
“People living with HIV now can live a healthy life and live about as long as people without HIV, but the chance of living a healthy life with HIV depends on having the HIV diagnosed early and starting treatment early.
“Which it’s why it’s so important to be tested regularly, particularly as many STIs often don’t cause symptoms, so you won’t know you have one.”
Looking at the big picture, if you have an undiagnosed and untreated STI, you could give it to your sexual partners, who pass it onto theirs, which is how you got it.
“Getting a regular STI test is not only important for your own health, it also makes you a responsible sexual partner,” Cornelisse says.
“I encourage people to discuss STI testing with their sexual partners. If your sexual partners are also getting tested regularly, it reduces your risk of getting an STI.”
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