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How do they test for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)? When can I get tested for an STD?

Health care providers test for STDs in several ways. Depending on the symptoms, they might do a physical examination of the genitals, test samples of fluids from the vagina, anus, throat and urethra, or do a urine test. They might also do a blood test for HIV, syphilis or hepatitis or they may do a mouth swab test for HIV.

You should ask a clinic or doctor’s office which STDs they test for. Some clinics routinely test for only a few infections, so if there is a particular test you need, ask for it. Also, don’t assume that STD tests are part of a routine physical or pelvic exam. Some STD tests require written consent, so be sure you know if you’re being tested and for what.

Since many STDs have no symptoms, you can’t rely on symptoms alone. The longer an STD goes untreated, the more damage it can do to you and others. STDs need to be treated because they won’t go away on their own. For example, you may not have any symptoms that gonorrhea, but you can still pass the STD on to someone else if you’re not treated.

When you can get tested really depends on the STD. Some, like gonorrhea and chlamydia, can be detected in the body soon after you have been infected, even if you have no symptoms. STDs, such as HPV and herpes, can sometimes be detected in the blood before they show up on the skin, but those tests do not always pick up the infection before visible symptoms occur. Other STDs, like HIV, require a waiting period so that enough of the virus, bacteria or antibodies are present and detected on the test. Antibodies are created when you get a particular infection and your body tries to fight it. In the case of HIV, it can take up to three months for enough antibodies to be produced in the blood to cause a positive HIV test result.

When you go to get tested, you will need to be prepared to share personal information with a health care provider. The provider will ask you about the types of sexual behaviors you did, the number of partners you had and when you last might have been at risk for getting an STD. Health care providers are not there to judge you, so it’s important for you to be honest. In nearly all health care settings, this information is completely confidential, meaning the information won’t be shared with anyone. When you make your appointment, ask about that health care center’s policy on confidentiality just to be sure.

Got a question about STDs? Visit the American Sexual Health Association’s website.

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