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A Simple Guide to Screening for Sexually Transmitted Infections

Note: In this guide, we will use the terms sexually transmitted disease (STD) and sexually transmitted infection (STI) interchangeably. Medical professionals prefer the later, most people use the former. Both words mean essentially the same thing.

Screening for STDs is a primary method of preventing the spread of illness and infection. Unfortunately, there’s a common misconception that this process is painful, embarrassing or otherwise and uncomfortable. However, undergoing STI screening does not have to be a negative experience. Most tests are quick, painless, private and accurate, thus providing an enormous amount of peace of mind and preventing the spread of infectious disease.

Your STD test can be performed in a number of settings. Most commonly, you will visit a doctor’s office, a clinic or in a privately-owned testing facility. Although pricing may vary, most options are affordable or, in some cases, free. At-home tests are also available and can be purchased in pharmacies, retail outlets or online. However, it’s important to note that at-home tests may require a followup in a medical setting.

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Gonorrhea

A gonorrhea test can be administered for a number of reasons. In most cases, screening is done to diagnose symptoms or as a proactive measure for individuals at an increased risk for contracting this infection. Gonorrhea testing can be done in a number of ways, most of which include the collection of bodily fluids. This could mean fluids from the genitals, while in other cases it involves the collection of urine or eye fluid. Once fluid is collected, a gonorrhea culture can determine the presence of this infection. These cultures involve the use of a microscope, dyes and other substances that help diagnose gonorrhea as well as determine its severity, strain and more.

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Chlamydia

In addition to those at high-risk for contracting this disease, chlamydia testing is recommended for all sexually active individuals under the age of 25. Also, due to complications during pregnancy, all expectant mothers should be screened for this infection as well. Diagnosing chlamydia is a relatively simple procedure. In women, a doctor will collect a sample of cervical discharge; in men, fluid is collected from the urethra. After that, a medical professional can determine the presence of chlamydia antigens or DNA.

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Human Papillomavirus

HPV testing is only available for women. It is often recommended in those who are high-risk, pregnant, over the age of 30 or have received abnormal pap smear results. HPV screening is done by collecting a sample of cells from the cervix. In most cases, this is done during routine pelvic exams. Once cervical cells are collected, they are sent to a laboratory for examination. If a strain or strains of HPV are found, a followup is often necessary. In most cases, additional tests include those for cervical cancer and repeat HPV screenings.

Syphilis

Syphilis screening is recommended in pregnant women as well as in individuals at high risk for contracting this disease. Also, some states require a syphilis test before a marriage license can be obtained. Screenings for syphilis require samples of blood, fluids or tissue. In the early stages of syphilis, testing can be performed on sores associated with this disease while late-stage syphilis often requires screening of the blood. Once samples are collected, a medical professional can determine the presence of antibodies or bacteria associated with syphilis. This is usually done with the use of microscopes and other equipment.

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Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B tests are recommended for individuals who are experiencing symptoms or believe that they may have been exposed to the Hepatitis B virus (HBV). This includes sexual partners of infected individuals, people who use intravenous drugs, babies born to mothers with hepatitis B. When screening a patient for hepatitis B, medical professionals will perform a blood test. There are many available, and they may be ordered individually or as part of a group. Ask your doctor to explain the purpose of the procedure to you to you.

These include:

  • Hepatitis B Surface Antigen (HBsAG) – determines whether a person has acute or chronic HBV infection
  • Hepatitis B Surface Antibody (anti-HBs) – determines if a person is immune to HBV, either through vaccination or recovery from a Hepatitis B infection
  • Total Hepatitis B Core Antibody (anti-HBc) – determines whether a person is currently infected with HBV or was in the past
  • IgM Antibody to Hepatitis B Core Antigen (IgM anti-HBc) – determines if a person was infected within the past 6 months
  • Hepatitis B “e” Antigen (HBeAg) – determines if a person is likely to spread HBV and monitor treatment of chronic Hepatitis B
  • Hepatitis B e Antibody (HBeAb or anti-HBe) – determines if a person with chronic infection is at high risk of liver problems
  • Hepatitis B Viral DNA – determines likelihood of spreading the virus, risk level for liver damage and effectiveness of treatment for chronic Hepatitis B infection

HIV

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all individuals between the ages of 13 and 64 be tested for HIV. In addition, pregnant women and high-risk individuals should also be screened. Those at high risk for contracting HIV include gay men, individuals with multiple sex partners, those who have unprotected sex, intravenous drug users and individuals who have been diagnosed with other STD’s.

HIV is usually diagnosed in one of two ways: through a blood sample or via epithelial cell samples taken from the insides of the cheeks. Once blood or cell samples are collected, they are sent to a lab for testing. These tests determine the presence of HIV antibodies and other indicators of this virus. If a particular sample comes up positive for HIV, it is then reexamined. In the event of a positive followup, another screen is performed in order to determine the presence of HIV proteins. A diagnosis is only made in the event of positive results on all three tests.

It’s important to note that HIV antibodies may not show up in the blood until months after the initial exposure. For this reason, followup testing is recommended in the event of negative results.

Be Proactive!

Testing is crucial when it comes to preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Through screening and the use of protection, both public and personal health are significantly improved.

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More Resources

Planned Parenthood
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention