Okay, let’s talk about getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Yeah, we know. The whole subject of STDs is difficult for most of us to even read about, let alone talk about.
And getting tested for a sexually transmitted infection can be a very awkward subject to initiate, even with your empathetic, trusted, and non-judgmental OB/GYN. But the potential consequences of not talking about it far outweigh any embarrassment that might be inherent in such a discussion.
How common are STDs?
STDs, also known as STIs (sexually transmitted infections), are extremely common. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.gov), about 20 million new sexually transmitted infections are acquired each year in the United States.
For a variety of reasons, many of those infectious diseases will not receive prompt treatment. There’s always that awkward embarrassment factor that can delay or even prevent diagnosis and treatment.
And many STDs don’t display any symptoms at all. Some STD-like symptoms can also indicate non-sexually transmitted infections. The result? Many people have an STD without being aware of it. That’s why testing is so important.
Some of the common sexually transmitted diseases we test for:
Human papilloma virus (a.k.a. HPV)
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. 79 million Americans, most in their late teens and early 20s, are infected with HPV. There are many different types of HPV infections. Many are relatively innocuous, but some can cause health problems, including genital warts and cancers. But vaccines are available that can prevent these health problems.
Chlamydia is a common STD that infects both men and women. It can cause serious, permanent damage to a woman’s reproductive system. These changes can make it difficult or impossible for her to get pregnant subsequently. Chlamydia can also cause an ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy that occurs outside the womb), that can be fatal to both mother and child.
Anyone who is sexually active can get gonorrhea. Gonorrhea can cause very serious complications if not treated but can be readily cured with the right medication.
Syphilis can cause infections in the genitals, rectum, and throat. It’s a very common infection, especially among young people ages 15-24 years.
Syphilis is a notorious STD that can cause very serious health problems if it’s not treated. Syphilis is divided into stages (primary, secondary, latent, and tertiary). There are different signs and symptoms associated with each stage.
Syphilis can result from direct contact during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. Tragically, it can be transmitted from an infected mother to her baby.
Hepatitis A, B, and CHepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. The liver is a vital organ that process nutrients, filters the blood, and fights infections. When the liver is inflamed or damaged, its functions can be affected. Heavy alcohol use, toxins, some medications, and certain medical conditions can cause hepatitis. However, hepatitis is often caused by a virus found in semen, vaginal fluids and saliva.
Herpes simplex virus
Genital herpes is another common STD that any sexually active person can get. Most people with this virus don’t have symptoms. Even without signs of the disease, herpes can be passed on to sex partners.
Trichomoniasis (or “trich”) is yet another very common STD. It’s caused by a protozoan parasite called trichomonas vaginalis. Although symptoms of the disease vary, most people who have the parasite remain unaware that they have been infected.
HIV/AIDS (human immunodeficiency virus)
Those who have an STD are more likely to get an HIV infection than someone who is STD-free. This is because the same behaviors and circumstances that enhance the risk of getting an STD also increase the risk of getting HIV. In addition, having a lesion from an STD can give the HIV virus easier access into your system.
Which STDs are curable?
Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, trichomoniasis and Hepatitis C are all now curable. While Hepatitis B, genital herpes, HIV, and HPV are not currently curable, treatment protocols are readily available that effectively manage those conditions and minimize their effects. But diagnosis precedes treatment, and you can’t get diagnosed without testing. So don’t put it off.
There’s currently no cure for Hepatitis A, but it normally gets better on its own within a couple of months. It can be complicated by medications, alcohol and certain drugs, so testing for this condition is also a very good idea.
Symptoms often shared by common STDs include:
- Sores, bumps or blisters on the genitals, oral, or rectal areas
- Painful urination
- Unusual vaginal discharge
- Unusual vaginal bleeding
- Pain during sexual intercourse
- Sore or swollen lymph nodes
- Itching, pain, irritation, or swelling in the vagina, vulva, or anus
These symptoms may appear shortly after acquiring the infection, or they may not appear for weeks, months, or even years. And most of these symptoms can also be caused by conditions that aren’t STDs. So testing is the only way to know what’s going on for sure.
When should you get tested for STDs?
- When you consider having sexual activity, or when you turn twenty-one, whichever comes first
- Before you start having sexual contact with a new partner
- When you’re had unprotected sex or believe you might have been exposed to an STD from an infected person
- And, of course, whenever any of the above health problems appear
How often should you get tested?
CDC guidelines don’t suggest blanket STD testing for those who are symptom-free. But the CDC does advise sexually active women under the age of twenty-five to undergo annual screening for chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Women over twenty-five with a new sex partner, multiple sexual partners, or a partner with an STD are at high risk and should also undergo yearly chlamydia and gonorrhea screening.
All pregnant women should be tested for syphilis, HIV, hepatitis B, chlamydia, and gonorrhea early in their pregnancies.
Everyone between the ages of 13 to 64 should be tested for HIV at least once.
Anyone who practices unsafe sex or shares injection drug equipment should get tested for HIV at least once a year.
How is STD testing obtained?
Testing for STDs can be quick, painless, and inexpensive. But such testing is not automatically included in a regular checkup or gynecological exam. So you have to ask for it.
If you don’t totally trust your health care provider, keep looking until you find one that merits your complete confidence.
When you have located a healthcare provider you can rely on, be totally candid, open, and honest with that person about your sex life. Then the two of you, as a team, can determine the best way to maintain your sexual health.
5 things to tell your healthcare provider about your sexual activity
- Any symptoms you’re having,
- If you or your partner has ever had a prior STD,
- The number of people you have had sexual contact with,
- Whether or not you have used protection for safe sex, and;
- The nature of sex you have had (oral sex, anal sex, vaginal sex, etc.).
Again, don’t be embarrassed. You’re not going to shock your doctor. You’re not even going to impress her. Remember that she’s heard it all before, many, many times.
How does STD testing work?
The mechanics of most STD tests are relatively simple. You’ll undergo a physical exam; during which your doctor will check your genital area for symptoms.
Your doctor may then ask for a urine sample, do a blood test, or take a cheek swab.
If you have sores or a discharge, a sample will be taken for lab analysis.
A swab may be used to take samples from your genitals, or other relevant areas.
Your healthcare provider may be able to tell immediately if you have an STD. But some tests take time to come back from a lab.
What happens if I have an STD?
Having an STD doesn’t have to be a big deal. You’re not alone. (Remember those other 20 million cases that will be diagnosed this year.) Most STDs are easily curable, and those that aren’t totally curable can be effectively managed.
People with STDs routinely have healthy and loving relationships, continue to have sex, and live totally normal lives. Most people get an STD at least once during their life, and millions are successfully living with STDs now. Remember that it’s just an infection, not an indictment.
About Dr. Thaïs Aliabadi
As one of the nation’s leading OB-GYNs, Dr. Thaïs Aliabadi offers the very best in gynecological and obstetric care. Together with her warm professional team, Dr. Aliabadi supports women through all phases of life. She fosters a special one-on-one relationship between patient and doctor.
We invite you to establish care with Dr. Aliabadi. Please click here to make an appointment or call us at (844) 863-6700.