Prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases and sexually transmitted infections is on the rise, with rates of several common STDs — for several consecutive years, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite this (or more likely a major contributor to the rise of STDs), few Americans are getting checked for the presence of STDs or STIs.
Even those who are at an increased risk of contracting certain infections, such as those who are at a higher risk of getting HIV, aren’t getting tested; less than 30% of people with elevated HIV risk were tested in the past year. And fewer than 4 in 10 Americans have ever had an HIV test in their lifetimes, the CDC said.
Regardless of the reasons why they haven’t been tested, there’s no denying that finding out your STD status is one of the most important ways that everyday individuals can make a difference in the fight against sexually transmitted diseases. The vast majority of people who spread STIs are not aware that they are infected, and becoming aware leads to treatment and, ideally, healthier sexual habits in the future.
But many people who are interested in learning their STD status may be confused about the process for STD testing and how they can find out if they’ve been infected.
Where to Go
If you’re interested in getting an STD test today, even right now, you have several options, though it’s important to remember that regardless of how you get tested and where, it’s likely your results will take at least a few days (more on that later). And if you’re willing to wait a day or so, you could order a test kit from an online seller.
Generally, these are the options when it comes to test providers:
- Doctor’s office: One of the simplest ways is to make an appointment at the office of your primary care provider. Your doctor, nurse practitioner or other care provider will likely conduct a visual examination in the event that you are experiencing painful urination or have sores around your genitals. They may take a bodily swab or a sample of blood, urine or fluid from any open sores (or all of the above in some cases).
- Health clinic: Facilities such as Planned Parenthood and other community health clinics also provide confidential STD testing, and many of these can be accessed via walk-in, though it might be necessary to make an appointment as you would at your doctor’s office. The exam and testing process will be the same or very similar regardless of where you go, though. Some pharmacy-based health clinics, such as those operated by CVS or Walgreens, also do STD testing, though specific services vary by location.
- Urgent care: Independent and hospital-affiliated urgent care centers are popular options for those who urgently need an STD test and/or don’t want to bother with going to their doctor’s office. Again, the specific testing process will depend on your symptoms and what STDs you’re being checked for, but the exam and sample methods won’t vary too much by the testing facility.
- At-home test kits: Whether purchased in a brick-and-mortar retailer or ordered online and sent to your home, many options are available for at-home STD testing. Depending on the science behind the test and what it’s checking for, you could give a small blood or urine sample or take a swab of your body and send that off for testing.
How Testing Works
The exact science behind STD testing is variable depending on the possible infections in question as well as what the test is looking for, but in most cases, lab scientists are checking for one of two things — antibodies or DNA/RNA.
Many STD tests examine your blood or urine for evidence of antibodies, or the material that the immune system begins producing once it detects an infection. While this is the most common way to screen for STDs, it may produce variable results based on the incubation period of each disease as well as the individual body of the person being tested. Some people’s immune systems are less sensitive than others, and those people may produce antibodies later or make fewer of them, making an infection more difficult to detect.
Other STD tests, including a common and popular test for HIV, checks for the presence of the infection itself, looking for traces of the DNA or RNA of the infection in question. This testing is done via a process called nucleic-acid amplification, and most STD tests that are done using urine samples employ this method. The biggest benefit of this testing method is that positive results can be detected from a very small amount of the DNA or RNA of a virus or other infection, which means it may be possible to see results more quickly after an exposure to an STI. For this reason, many providers prefer this type of testing for many of the most serious STDs, such as HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Waiting for Results
As we’ve already mentioned, the amount of time it takes to get either a positive or negative result depends on a variety of factors, especially the infection in question and the testing method.
The most common method for checking for the presence of STDs is still antibody testing, which requires a certain amount of time for the body to begin reacting to the infection and producing a measurable level of antibodies. Here is a look at general antibody testing windows:
HIV: 23-90 days
Chlamydia: 7-21 days
Gonorrhea: 1-14 days
Syphilis: 3 weeks (for primary syphilis, the earliest stage)
Hepatitis C: 4-10 weeks
Hepatitis B: 4 weeks
It’s important to remember that genetic testing for pathogens may be able to detect the presence of an infection earlier than antibody tests, but availability varies, and even if a negative result is produced from either kind of test, it may be necessary to get re-tested after a period of time. For those who test positive and are successfully treated, re-testing is recommended to ensure a good result.
Nobody really wants to spread sexually transmitted diseases or infections to their partners. The vast majority of people who do spread these infections do so accidentally and, usually, because they don’t know they are infected. That’s why getting yourself tested at least once, and if you have many different partners, getting tested with some regularity can empower you to make sure you’re not contributing to the spread of STDs.
The good news is it’s probably never been easier to get tested for STDs thanks to widespread availability of trustworthy STD testing from a variety of sources, from your doctor’s office to at-home kits.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Most Americans Have Never Had an HIV Test, New Data Show. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/2019/National-HIV-Testing-Day-2019.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance, 2018, Table 1. Sexually Transmitted Diseases — Reported Cases and Rates of Reported Cases*, United States, 1941–2018. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats18/tables/1.htm