What You Should Know About STD Testing

Reported cases of STDs continue to rise with syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia reaching record-high rates per 100,000 U.S. residents in 2018. While the statistics are alarming, there are ways to protect yourself and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Abstinence, vaccination, mutual monogamy, and proper condom use can help decrease or eliminate your risk of contracting an STD. Additionally, whether you've engaged in risky sexual behavior or just want peace of mind, STD testing can let you know exactly where you stand so you can receive proper treatment, if necessary

Key Points

  • 1 STDs are transmitted primarily through vaginal, oral, or anal sex with an infected individual.
  • 2 Testing is the only way to know for sure if you’ve contracted an STD and, if so, which particular disease.
  • 3 Most STDs are tested using blood, urine, or discharge samples.
  • 4 Besides physician offices and walk-in health clinics, at-home testing is available for many STDs.

Written by Jane Anderson

The Basics of STDs

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), sometimes called sexually transmitted infections (STIs), are highly contagious and primarily spread through sexual activity, including vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Other conditions can also be spread through sexual activity, but for these specific infections, it’s the main route of transmission.

Name Other Names Symptoms
Chlamydia Clam
Gooey stuff
Discharge
Painful urination
Testicle swelling and/or pain
Abdominal tenderness
Gonorrhea The Clap
The Drip
Discharge
Painful urination
Testicle swelling and/or pain
Rectal itching and/or bleeding
Genital Herpes Herpes
Herps
Genital sores
Flu-like symptoms
Hepatitis Hep A
Hep B
Hep C
Fever
Joint pain
Loss of appetite/weight
Dark-colored urine
Clay-colored stools
HIV The Virus
The Deadliest Catch
Hi-Five
Pre-Aids
Stage One: fever, chills, swollen glands, rash
Stage Two: persistent swollen glands
Stage Three: weakened immune system (fever, diarrhea, pneumonia, fatigue, chronic infections)
HPV HPV warts
Genital warts
HPV infection
Warts on genitalia, mouth, or throat
Syphilis Syph
Lues
The Pox
Primary stage: Painless sore
Secondary stage: Rash, swollen glands, fever
Tertiary stage: Neurological disorders, blindness, organ failure
Trichomoniasis Trich Discharge
Painful urination
Genital itching
Genital pain and/or burning

Why Should You Be Tested for STDs?

In their early stages, many STDs are largely asymptomatic, which precipitates their spread by unknowing carriers. Sexually active adolescents and young adults (aged 15 to 24) are at particular risk, with nearly 10 million new infections occurring every year. While prescription medication can easily cure many STDs, these infections can cause serious organ damage, infertility, and danger to unborn children if left untreated. STD testing is the only way to know for sure if you’ve been infected.

When Should You Be Tested for STDs?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in collaboration with the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), provides recommendations for STD testing among persons aged 13 to 65 for each of the common STDs. Below is a summary of their guidelines. Note: Risky or unsafe sexual practices include sex with multiple partners and anonymous partners and/or lack of condom use.

HIV

  • Once in a lifetime: All persons between the ages of 13 to 64
  • During pregnancy: All pregnant women
  • Annually: Persons with unsafe sexual practices and needle use
  • Three to six months: Men who have sex with men and/or have unsafe sexual practices

Chlamydia and Gonorrhea

  • Annually: Sexually active women aged 25 and under, individuals over age 25 who engage in risky sexual behavior, sexually active men, and gay or bisexual individuals
  • During pregnancy: At-risk pregnant women

Syphilis

  • During pregnancy: All pregnant women
  • Annually: Sexually active men and gay or bisexual individuals

Hepatitis B

  • During pregnancy: All pregnant women

In addition to the above recommendations, you should also be tested if you have recently engaged in unsafe sexual practices or have any of the following symptoms:

  • Genital sores or blisters
  • Unusual discharge from the urethra, vagina, or rectum
  • Painful urination
  • Unexplained genital rash

How Does STD Testing Work?

STD testing is relatively quick, painless, and reliable. You can be tested at your primary care doctor’s office, urgent care facilities, and health clinics. Additionally, at-home test kits are available that test for one or multiple STDs. Some kits provide rapid results while others require a mailed-in sample and post results to your online account. Regardless, sample collection is fairly similar among the testing sites.

Testing for Syphilis

The typical syphilis testing involves blood work, either from venipuncture or finger stick. Collecting fluid from an open sore is also a possible means of screening for syphilis. If you test positive, another analysis is usually performed to confirm the result. Health clinics, doctors’ offices, and mail-in test kits can all provide you with a reliable conclusion.

Testing for Asymptomatic Genital Herpes 

If there are no active herpes sores present, the only way to detect the virus is through a blood sample. Venipuncture or finger prick is the most common method to obtain a blood sample. At-home test kits provide lancets and blood collection devices so you can mail your sample for analysis. Doctors’ offices and clinics will collect the sample and send it to a lab for processing. The CDC does not usually recommend screening for herpes via blood testing in the absence of symptoms.

Testing for Symptomatic Genital Herpes 

Active herpes sores provide an excellent vehicle for collecting a sample of the virus. Typically, a swab is gently rotated within the sore to gather pus, and it’s then sent to a lab for testing. If your screening is positive for genital herpes, you should discuss with your doctor how to manage symptoms and prevent spreading the virus to your partner. Active herpes sores can also increase your risk of contracting other STDs. At-home test kits are available.

Testing for Gonorrhea

The location of the gonorrhea infection determines the testing procedure. In most cases, a urine sample is the method of choice for detecting the bacteria in men and women. However, if symptoms point to a throat or rectal infection (from oral or anal sex), it’s best to collect a sample with a swab. At-home testing kits are available.

Testing for Hepatitis

All strains of hepatitis can be tested via a blood sample. Often, a full panel is completed, which tests for hepatitis A, B, and C. You may receive an order from your doctor to go to a walk-in laboratory or visit a health clinic. You can also test at home for hepatitis B and C and mail in your sample for results.

Testing for HIV

There are a variety of ways to test for HIV, including using saliva or a blood sample via venipuncture or finger prick. If the goal is to attempt to detect antibodies soon after exposure, venous blood is best. Finger prick blood and saliva may only show antibodies anywhere from 23 to 90 days after exposure. Rapid at-home tests typically use swabs to test saliva.

Testing for Trichomoniasis

Laboratory personnel can easily identify the parasite that causes trichomoniasis through a microscope. Typical methods of collecting a specimen for examination include first-catch urine samples and urethral swab samples. Urine collection is a much less invasive procedure and is the method of choice for at-home mail-in test kits.

Testing for HPV (Genital Warts)

If genital warts are present, your doctor may be able to make a visual diagnosis, using a magnifying lens if necessary. A solution containing vinegar can be applied to the genital area to make the warts more visible. Biopsies are typically not done on genital warts unless there is unusual coloring.

Testing for HPV (Cervical Cancer)

Similar to a Pap test, your doctor can collect cells from the walls of the vagina or cervix using a long swab. Laboratory personnel will study the specimens to determine the strain of HPV because some types can cause cellular abnormalities that may develop into cervical cancer over time. There are at-home tests available for HPV that include mail-in vaginal swabs.

Testing for Chlamydia

The testing procedure for chlamydia is very similar to that for gonorrhea, and screening procedures often check for the two diseases simultaneously. A urine sample is the easiest way of collecting a specimen, although swab testing is best for possible throat or anal infections. Swabs can also be used to gather discharge in the endocervical canal.

Frequently Asked Questions


  • How often should I get tested for STDs?

    How often you test for STDs depends on your risk factors and lifestyle. If you are engaging in unprotected sex, especially with multiple partners or people you don’t know well, you should test for STDs regularly. Recommendations range between a few months and annually, depending on your risk factors.


  • How soon should I test for STDs after an unprotected sexual encounter?

    The short answer is — it depends. Each organism, whether it be a virus, parasite, or bacterium, has a window period after exposure. Some STDs can be detected in as little as two weeks, while others, such as HIV, may take as long as three months. Your doctor or health clinic can provide the details on your specific STD, and most at-home test kits have a telephone help line or online chat service to answer further questions and concerns.


  • How can I order an STD test?

    You can buy STD tests from a number of online labs and drug stores. Stores such as Walgreens and CVS may also sell these items online. In some cases, you’re required to use an online portal to answer personal health questions about yourself. You may also have a confidential video conference with a clinician so they can take your health history. This information often may inform the diagnosis when revising the results of any STD test, but it also helps the company in question recommend the right test for you.


  • How long does it take to get results from STD tests?

    In a clinical setting that includes an in-house lab, you may be able to get immediate or same-day results. In many cases, however, results from home tests or those from clinics that have to send the tests to a separate lab can take around a week.


  • What does a positive result on an STD test mean?

    A positive result means that the test indicates you have the infection in question. The tests are fairly accurate, but you should always follow up with your medical providers for a definitive diagnosis. Your doctor can then work with you regarding treatment options and plans.


  • What does a negative result for an STD mean?

    A negative result on an STD test indicates that you do not have the infection in question. It’s fairly accurate, but if you’re still dealing with questionable symptoms even after receiving a negative result, something could be wrong. You might not have handled the home test appropriately, for example, or you may be experiencing a completely different type of health concern. If you’re not feeling well, make an appointment with your medical provider to find out what might be wrong.


  • How do I notify a previous sexual partner of a positive STD test result?

    Local and state health departments provide Partner Notification Services to help individuals alert former partners without the need to provide a name. Trained professionals will contact the individual, offering suggestions as to testing and treatment options.


  • Do I need to be retested for STDs after I finish my medicine?

    It’s very common to have repeat infections of some STDs, specifically chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis. Therefore, the CDC highly recommends retesting within a few months of finishing treatment. This is not a test to determine if the treatment worked but rather a way to detect reinfection. Syphilis also has a follow-up testing procedure. STDs that are not curable don’t need retesting.


  • Do condoms prevent all STDs?

    Condoms and dental dams can significantly reduce your risk of contracting an STD. The key is using them consistently (for every sexual act) and properly. However, they are not 100% effective, especially against STDs that can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact. Some examples include HPV genital warts, genital herpes, and syphilis.


  • Are my STD test results confidential?

    Federal law protects your private health information, and you must provide consent before disclosure. However, doctors’ offices, clinics, and online testing companies may be required to report positive STD results to state and local health departments for statistical data, especially concerning HIV infections. Governmental organizations are required to remove your personal information, such as name and address, before sharing your results with the CDC.


  • Are STD tests covered by insurance?

    Some insurance companies do cover STD tests when they’re conducted at a doctor’s office or medical clinic. Contact your insurance company to find out which tests it covers and how much you might have to pay out of pocket.

Additional Resources

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides easy-to-read fact sheets, including screening, symptoms, and treatment options, on a variety of STDs.
  • Disease-specific research is available on the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases website, including NIAID HIV/AIDS research.
  • HealthyPeople.gov provides resources and national statistics on the most common STDs.
  • The World Health Organization offers a global view of HIV infections and other sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Learn ways to reduce your risk of STDs from the American Sexual Health Association.
  • The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists provides STD resources directed toward pregnant women.