For anybody who is sexually active, one of the most important preventive healthcare activities they can do is get screened for sexually transmitted diseases and infections. Federal guidelines call for almost everyone to have at least one screening for HIV in their lifetimes and for young women and men who have sex with men to get more regular screening, generally about once per year.
What’s recommended for each person varies by their level of sexual activity and their sexual orientation and gender expression. For instance, gay and bisexual men who have multiple partners may benefit from more regular testing.
While it’s possible to get tested for just one STD (in the event that you were exposed to something specific), it’s also wise to get checked for several at once, and one popular method for doing that is by purchasing a standard 5-panel STD testing kit, which will allow you to submit samples to be tested for five sexually transmitted diseases at once.
The standard 5-panel STD kit tests for chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, syphilis and trichomoniasis. Learn more about how these tests work at what your risk level might be for each of the diseases that are tested in most 5-panel kits.
Chlamydia is the most common reportable STD, and the CDC estimates that more than 1.7 million new infections were transmitted in the U.S. in 2018. The prevalence of chlamydia has climbed in the U.S. every year since 2013.
Almost 2 in 3 cases of chlamydia occur in people between the ages of 15 and 24, and women are more likely than men to be diagnosed, though women also are screened for the infection more often.
In women and men, chlamydia usually does not produce any obvious physical symptoms, but the most common physical signs are painful urination, discomfort during sex and unusual genital discharge.
Almost 600,000 new infections of gonorrhea occurred in the U.S. in 2018, representing the fifth consecutive year of increases in total infections reported. The population-adjusted gonorrhea infection rate has nearly doubled since 2009, rising from 98.1 per 100,000 people to 179.1 per 100,000 in 2018.
Gonorrhea is more common in men than women, and the rate of infection in men is rising faster than that for women. The rate of gonorrhea in men was 202.5 per 100,000 in 2017, compared to 141.8 per 100,000 for women, and gonorrhea prevalence has risen by more than 86% in men since 2013. For women, the rate has gone up by just 39.4% in that time.
Gonorrhea is more likely to show symptoms in men than in women, though most people don’t have any obvious physical signs of infection. Those who do may experience a burning sensation when urinating, unusual discharge from the penis or vaginal bleeding between periods. It’s also possible to contract gonorrhea rectally, and symptoms of rectal infections include itching, discharge and bleeding.
Most STD testing kits check for both types of the virus, HIV-1 and HIV-2, though HIV-1 is much more common in the U.S. than HIV-2. HIV prevalence has remained relatively stable in the U.S. over the past several years, and about 38,000 people receive new diagnoses every year.
About 1.1 million Americans are estimated to be living with HIV, including about 15% who are unaware they are infected. Men who have sex with men are the population group that’s most heavily affected by HIV, accounting for two-thirds of all new cases and more than 80% of cases in men. But most population groups have seen their diagnosis rates fall or remain steady over the past few years.
A new HIV infection will usually make a person feel sick with flu-like symptoms within a few weeks. Symptoms include fever, sore throat and fatigue, and most people mistake their symptoms for a cold or the flu. These physical signs usually go away, and left untreated, HIV can progress to AIDS, which can be fatal.
Cases of syphilis have risen dramatically in the U.S. in recent years, jumping by about 30% between 2016 and 2018 alone. Still, syphilis today is much less common than it was before the widespread availability of antibiotics, which can cure the infection. Today, the population-adjusted rate of all stages of syphilis infections is 35.3 per 100,000; that number was 447 per 100,000 in 1943.
Men who have sex with men are at the highest risk of contracting syphilis, but both men and women have seen rates of syphilis infections rise in recent years. Among women, the rate of primary and secondary syphilis (the earliest stages of the infection) has climbed by more than 150% between 2013 and 2017, and the rate in men rose by nearly 66% in that same time.
Signs and symptoms of syphilis vary depending on the stage, and those with primary syphilis, or when the infection is in its inception, will most often have a sore or lesion at the original infection site. These can be on the mouth, anus, rectum or genitals and are usually painless. Secondary syphilis symptoms usually include a rash, swollen lymph nodes and feder. For both stages, signs may be mild or not obvious at all. During latent syphilis, most people show no signs, but tertiary syphilis usually causes severe and obvious medical problems, including affecting the heart and brain. If left untreated, syphilis can lead to permanent organ damage and even death.
Trichomoniasis, usually called trich (pronounced “trick”), is the most common curable STD, and health officials estimate that about 3.7 million Americans have the infection. Detailed prevalence data is unavailable because trich is not a federally notifiable disease, but the number of women who saw their doctors because of a trich infection rose by nearly 60% between 2015 and 2016.
Women are more common than men to have trich, with one study showing that 2.8% of adolescent girls had trich compared to 1.7% of boys. Other studies have shown that trich is more common in black women than either white or Hispanic women.
Men infected with trich are less likely than their female counterparts to display any obvious physical signs, but for women, trich can cause a foul-smelling vaginal discharge as well as painful urination.
How Does STD Testing Work?
There are two main scientific methods for testing for the presence of STDs, and before you purchase an STD testing kit, you should understand the distinctions.
Many STD tests are conducted by searching not for the infection itself but for the body’s reaction to it. Within a variable period of time after a body becomes infected, the immune system will respond to fight the infection by producing antibodies or antigen. Many STD tests look in the blood or urine for these proteins.
The other common method of checking for an STD is looking in a sample for the actual virus or bacteria itself. This is one of the most common ways of testing for HIV, since the virus often can be detected through this method before the body begins producing antibodies to fight the pathogen.
For most people, a standard 5-panel STD test kit can give them a good idea of their sexual health, covering most of the very common STDs that are out there. Arming yourself with knowledge is a crucial tool in reducing the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases and infections.
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
HIV.gov, U.S. Statistics, Fast Facts. (2019.) Retrieved from https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/data-and-trends/statistics