A Guide to Regular STI Screenings

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If you think you have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection (STI), it is in your best interest to contact your healthcare provider for an STI test. In this way, you can seek treatment to either cure or manage the infection while reducing the odds of passing the STI to others.

STI testing is not a routine part of an annual checkup and often needs to be requested. This includes routine tests for certain groups—such as sexually active younger females or sexually active men who have sex with men (MSM)—who are at high risk of STIs like HIV or chlamydia.

This article provides details about the types of tests available for STI screening, including which are recommended for at-risk groups. It also helps dispel common misconceptions about STI testing so that you can make an informed choice when asking yourself, "Do I need an STI test?"

Doctor talking to her patient about her STD test
asiseeit / Getty Images

Types of STI Tests

Sexually transmitted infections, formerly known as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), are a group of bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections that are primarily passed through sexual contact.

Common STIs include:

There is no single test that can detect all STIs. As such, you may be advised to undergo a panel of different tests based on your risk of infection.

This is due in part to the fact that certain STIs commonly occur together, such as HIV and syphilis. These are referred to as co-infections.

So, if you've come to get tested for syphilis, don't be taken aback if you are advised to undergo additional tests. This is done as a precaution, and not because the clinic assumes that you are infected.

The different STI tests may require a blood sample, a urine sample, or a genital, rectal, or oral swab.

 STI  Testing Method(s)
Chlamydia Blood, urine, swab (oral or genital)
Gonorrhea Blood, urine, swab (oral or genital)
Hepatitis A Blood
Hepatitis B Blood
Hepatitis C Blood
Herpes Blood
HIV Blood, swab (oral)
HPV Pap smear
Syphilis Blood
Trichomoniasis Blood, urine, swab (genital)

Who Needs STI Testing?

People who come for STI screening commonly do so for one of four reasons:

  • They have been notified by a public health authority that someone they've had sex with has tested positive for an STI.
  • They suspect they may have been exposed to an STI based on symptoms.
  • They recently had condomless sex and are worried that they may have been exposed to an STI.
  • They are following recommended guidelines for routine STI screening.

There are certain STIs that affect some groups more than others. Because of this, national guidelines have been established to ensure that at-risk individuals are diagnosed and treated if needed.

The following are STI screening recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

 STI  Group  Recommendation
Chlamydia Women - Sexually active females under 25
- Sexually active females 25 and older who are at increased risk
  Pregnant people - All pregnant people under 25
- All pregnant people 25 and over who are at increased risk
  Men who have sex with men (MSM) - Annual for all sexually active MSM
- Every 3 to 6 months for MSM at high risk
Gonorrhea Women - Sexually active females under 25
- Sexually active females 25 and older who are at increased risk
  Pregnant people - All pregnant people under 25
- All pregnant people 25 and over who are at increased risk
  MSM - Annual for all sexually active MSM
- Every 3 to 6 months for MSM at high risk
Hepatitis B Women - Women at risk of exposure within the last 6 months
  Pregnant people - Test at the first prenatal visit
  Men who have sex with women (MSW) - MSW who are at increased risk
  MSM - MSM who are at increased risk
Hepatitis C All adults - All adults over 18 should be screened
Herpes Women - Consider for all females who seek STI testing
MSW - Consider for all MSW who seek STI testing
MSM - Consider for MSM who have had an undiagnosed genital infection
HIV All adults - All adults 13 to 64 should be screened as part of a routine medical visit
  Women - All females who seek STI testing
  Pregnant people - Test at the first prenatal visit
  MSM - At least once annually for sexually active MSM
- More frequent testing for MSM who are at high risk
HPV Women - Females 21 to 29 every 3 years
- Females 30 to 65 every 3 to 5 years based on testing method
  MSM - Anal Pap smear available but currently not recommended
- Digital rectal exam may be used to check for anal warts
Syphilis Pregnant women - Test at the first prenatal visit
MSM - Annually for sexually active MSM
- Test every 3 to 6 months for MSM at high risk
Trichomoniasis Women - Consider testing for females who are at high risk

Please note that this is only a partial list of CDC recommendations. To learn which STI tests are recommended for you as an individual, speak with your healthcare provider or contact an STI clinic near you.

Barriers to Regular STI Testing

Despite the screening recommendations from the CDC and other public health authorities, the rate of testing has fallen short for many of the more common STIs.

For example, around 13% of the 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States remain undiagnosed. Less-than-ideal testing rates for syphilis have also fueled a 413% increase in new infections between 2002 and 2017, with rates increasing year on year.

There are many reasons for this. Among them, the "shame" and stigma associated with STIs can make it difficult for some people to ask their healthcare providers for testing.

At the same time, the prospect of having to disclose a positive diagnosis to a sex partner can be overwhelming. STI testing may also force a person to reveal how they got infected, such as through extramarital sex or same-sex contact.

Moreover, with some STIs like HIV, people can become paralyzed by the fear of what the treatment will cost, what side effects may occur, and what a diagnosis means in turns of life expectancy.

Misconceptions and Moving Forward

Overcoming the multitude of concerns about STIs is not easy. On top of this, there are numerous misconceptions about STI screening that stand in the way of a person's decision to get tested.

Among them:

  • Some people incorrectly assume that their annual physical exam includes a comprehensive STI screening.
  • Others who are provided an "STI panel" incorrectly assume that it tests for includes every possible STI. Herpes is rarely included, and HPV never is.
  • Many people assume that an annual Pap smear tests for multiple STIs. Although it may include an HPV test, it does not test for other STIs.
  • Despite its name, a venereal disease research laboratory (VDRL) test only detects syphilis. It doesn't check for any other STIs.
  • An HIV test only detects HIV and does not detect other STIs. 
  • If you are treated for one STI, don't assume you're STI-free. Without additional tests, other STIs may be present.

Generally speaking, when someone says they were "tested for everything," it usually means that they don't know exactly which STIs they were tested for. Or, perhaps they were tested years ago and never thought about getting the results updated.

Whatever the reason, it is important to remember that the avoidance of testing places you at risk of complications—either now or years down the road—if you have an STI. It also places others at risk. This includes STIs that can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

On the other hand, if you test negative and have no STI, knowing your status often reinforces safer sex practices.

By knowing the facts and seeking advice from your healthcare provider, you can better understand the benefits and risks of STI testing and make an informed choice.

Who to Call for Advice

The CDC offers a national toll-free STI hotline available 24 hours a day at 1-800-232-4636/TTY 1-888-232-6348 (English and Spanish). The hotline not only offers comprehensive advice about STIs but can also refer you to free or low-cost testing sites near you.

Summary

Testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) not only protects your health if you have an STI but can also protect others from getting infected.

While there are many different tests that can detect STIs like gonorrhea or HIV, there is not one that is able to detect all STIs. Even certain "STI panels" may not include otherwise common STIs like herpes or HPV.

There are certain groups who are at high risk of certain STIs and are advised to seek routine testing. These include sexually active females and men who have sex with men (MSM) who are disproportionately affected by STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia.

Even if you test negative for STIs, knowing your status can help reinforce safer sex practices to protect yourself and others from infection.

A Word From Verywell

If you recall having had an STI test but can't remember what you were screened for, you can request of copy of your electronic medical records from your healthcare provider.

Better yet, ask your healthcare provider what STIs you should be screened for based not only on the guidelines but also on your individual risk of infection.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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