Most of us know that if we're sexually active, we should be having regular STI tests; every six months to be precise. But we also know that sexual health screenings can be daunting, particularly if you've recently had unprotected sex and are worried.
However, remember that sexual health screenings aren't just a chore; they're a vital part of self-care. Knowing the most common STI symptoms—such as unusual discharge or itching—can help you recognize when it's important to get checked, but doctors will be the first to tell you that it's often what's going on behind the scenes that's the problem, since many STIs can go unnoticed for some time.
Dr Rashid Bani, GP and Medical Director of Your Sexual Health, told Cosmopolitan UK that there's more to a sexual health screening than a quick swab. Get clued up on your own sexual health by asking your doctor these questions next time you go to a clinic...
Is it too early to get tested?
If you've recently had sex without protection and think you may be at risk of an STI, how soon can you be tested?
Dr. Rashid says: "There is a window period for testing to ensure you gain accurate results so it's important to know that you're within that period. With all tests the time of exposure can significantly affect results, so it's important that you let your nurse or doctor know as accurately and honestly as possible when you think exposure occurred before taking each particular test. Retesting three months later may also recommended in order to confirm results, particularly if you have had multiple sexual partners since your previous test."
What treatments are available if I test positive?
Don't panic if you test positive; your doctor will help you with next steps.
"Most STIs can be treated with antibiotics which can cure and eradicate the infection," Dr. Rashid says.
"Viral infections, such as HIV and hepatitis B & C, can be treated with antiviral drugs. Cure can be achieved with the hepatitis infections depending when exposure occurred, but the aim of treatment for HIV is to keep the viral load at undetectable levels. Full cure is difficult to achieve."
Do I need to be tested for an STI even though I don't observe any symptoms?
"It's an important question to ask because many people assume that if they don't have symptoms, then they can't have an STI," says Dr. Rashid. "On many occasions though, this is not the case. Many people who carry infections which can pass to others have no symptoms and no idea they are carriers."
So, yes—follow the recommended advice, and get tested at least every six months.
Herpes is one of the most widespread STIs; according to a study from the World Health organization, 67 percent of people in the world have the HSV-1 strain of the herpes simplex virus—which refers to oral herpes infections, but also includes genital infections.
The good news is, these days it carries basically no threat at all, but you may still want to be tested if you've kissed or had sex with someone with sores or ulcers—also referred to as "lesions."
Dr. Rashid explains: "Symptoms do not have to be present on the carrier to transmit the virus. People with herpes have it for 'life' and on a few days of the year, the virus will travel to the skin surface and shed from the skin. Close contact at this time can pass the infection to their partner. It's especially important to be tested if you are pregnant as it's possible to pass the virus on to your newborn baby at birth, causing neonatal herpes which can be fatal."
Which samples are needed for testing?
Bad news if you hate needles; blood tests are a necessary part of a full sexual health screening. Dr. Rashid says that tests include "a combination of blood, urine and swabs."
And swabs will vary depending on whether you have vaginal or anal sex, or both. "It's important to know that you are receiving the most effective sample method for your situation," he explains. "For example, men who have sex with men may receive more effective results using an anal swab, or people who are at risk of infection through oral sex may require a throat swab."
If you're not sure which you'll need, ask your doctor.
I've been told HIV can only be tested after 90 days. Is that true?
If you think you may have come into contact with HIV recently, how soon can you be tested? According to Dr. Rashid, you don't need to wait three months. "In these instances it can be distressing and inadvisable for the patient to wait 90 days, so it's important they get tested as soon as possible," he tells Cosmopolitan UK.
"It's true that most NHS clinics test for antibodies to HIV, which are produced around six weeks after infection, but can be delayed for up to 90 days. However, the good news is that other testing methods can identify p24 antigen (a protein created by the virus) much sooner. The recommended method of testing is combining antigen and antibody testing from 28 days. If you are almost certain that you've come into contact with HIV more recently than 28 days, there are still further options in terms of treatment and detection so don't hesitate to let your doctor or nurse know."
Should I get tested for chlamydia or gonorrhea alone as these are the most common STIs?
You might think that, because you're more likely to catch chlamydia, it's not worth testing for other infections. But Dr. Rashid explains that this isn't advisable.
"It is true these are amongst the most common STIs but there are others, and a risk to one is a risk to all," he says. "Full screening for all STIs is advised. There is also evidence that if a person is infected with one STI, such as chlamydia, the likelihood of other STIs being present is higher."
What is the best form of prevention? Can I get vaccinated instead of going to screenings?
Condoms are always the safest option to protect you from STIs during penetrative sex, but as Dr. Rashid explains, "It's an important question to ask, because prevention is always better than cure. A public health worker will be able to offer you the best advice for avoiding STIs and may even offer you free condoms or other preventative measures."
Sadly, vaccinations are currently only available for hepatitis B, and "even then, vaccination does not confer 100 percent protection so following potential exposure testing should still be done," says Dr. Rashid.
Am I safe if I've only had oral sex?
"Many people assume that they are safe to have oral sex, so it's an important question to ask," says Dr. Rashid. "Infections can be carried from the mouth or throat and passed on. There may be sores or ulcers in the mouth which you're unaware of. Unprotected oral sex still carries a risk and testing is advisable. It may be that the doctor or nurse also recommends a throat swab to gain more accurate results in these instances."
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.