Who Let The Doc Out?! #021: Which STD tests should you get, and how often should you get them?

Sex is very important. It is the primary way by which human beings make more of ourselves, and has been a way to share affection and pleasure since the dawn of humanity. Unfortunately, like many good things, it comes with risks, most common of which are sexually transmitted diseases – STDs.

STDs occur quite frequently among sexually active people. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, over one million STDs are contracted every day worldwide. However, most STDs present with no or mild signs and symptoms. This means the only way you can really be sure whether you have an STD is by getting tested.

This brings us to the topic we’ll be discussing today: what STD tests should you get, and how often is okay? Read on to find out.

What are the common STDs?

Over 30 different pathogens are known to be transmitted through sexual contact. However, the most common STDs are due to either bacterial or viral causes. Compiled below is a list of the eight commonest sexually transmitted infections globally:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Chlamydia
  • Syphilis
  • Gonorrhea
  • Herpes simplex virus (HSV or herpes)
  • Trichomoniasis
  • Hepatitis B
  • Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

It is important to note, however, that some of these infections can be transmitted through non-sexual contact, for example vertical transmission from mother to child, through blood transfusions, or through sharing contaminated needles.

What are the risk factors for STDs?

Certain individuals are at a higher risk of contracting STDs because of their sexual behavior, preferences, or occupation. These risk factors include

  • Having unprotected sex with multiple sexual partners
  • Prior history of STDs
  • Drug abuse
  • Non-consensual sexual intercourse
  • Having sex while under the influence of illicit drugs or alcohol

How regularly should you get tested for STDs?

The guidelines for routine testing for STDs vary from country to country, usually determined by each region’s disease burden and the prevalence of particular STDs. Certain sexual practices also place people at a higher risk for STDs, requiring them to test more regularly.

The US CDC compiled a set of guidelines to help sexually active individuals gauge how often they need to get tested for STDs, and they are as follows:

  • Adults and adolescents aged 13 to 64 years: Get tested at least once for HIV.
  • People engaging in unsafe sex or sharing drug injection equipment: Get tested for HIV annually.
  • Sexually active women younger than 25 years: Get tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia annually.
  • Women 25 years and older with risky sexual behavior or a partner with an STD: Get tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia annually.
  • Pregnant women:
    • Get tested for HIV, Hepatitis B and C, and syphilis starting early in pregnancy.
    • At-risk pregnant women should also get tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea.
    • Testing may be repeated as deemed necessary for the protection of the mother and infant.
  • Men who have sex with men:
    • Get tested for HIV at least once a year, but preferably every 3 to 6 months.
    • Get tested at least once annually for syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea.
    • Get tested at least once annually for Hepatitis C, if living with HIV.
  • People who have had unsafe oral or anal sex should speak with their healthcare provider about throat and rectal testing options.

For people who are very active sexually, the frequency of STD testing may go up to every 2 months. On the other hand, monogamous couples may only need to be tested once every 2 years.

Which STD tests should you get?

Most STD tests will require you to provide a specimen sample of either urine, blood, or a swab. In some cases, you may also have to acquiesce to a throat swab, if you have engaged in unprotected oral sex. The tests you require will depend on whether you have presented for a routine STD screen or as a result of symptoms.

The commonest symptom encountered by individuals suffering from STDs is abnormal genital discharge. However, some infections may cause warts, ulcers, foul smell, and genital itching. In such cases, it is more likely that a swab will be taken for culture and identification of the causative pathogen.

Routine tests are often offered for:

  • Chlamydia and gonorrhea: Swab samples can be collected from the penis, vagina, anal canal, or throat. Men may provide a urine sample instead of a swab.
  • HIV, syphilis, and Hepatitis B & C: These have rapid blood tests whose results are almost immediately available.

STD testing services are usually available at hospitals, clinics, and centers that offer family planning services.

Innocent Immaculate Acan is a medical doctor and writer. She won the Writivism Short Story Prize in 2016 and has published an illustrated children’s book titled The Pearl Trotters in Black, Yellow, Red. She was part of the 2018 class of the Young and Emerging Leaders Project.

Innocent Immaculate Acan