Sexuality Resource Center for Parents: Tools, Tips, and Tricks for Teaching Children about Human Sexuality

Testing for Sexually Transmitted Infections

(For Parents of Teenagers with Typical Development)
 

Note: This article's not just for you – share it with your teen.

Who Should Get Tested?

Anyone who thinks they may have a sexually transmitted infection should get tested. But they’re not the only ones who should get tested.

People often ask us if they need to be worried about sexually transmitted infections if they’ve never had sexual contact with another person. The answer is yes, yes, yes. Sexually transmitted infection means that the infection CAN be transmitted sexually – it doesn’t mean the infection can’t be transmitted some other way too. For starters, the most common sexually transmitted infections can be passed from a pregnant female to the fetus – which means you could have been born with a sexually transmitted infection. HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B can be spread by sharing drug needles with someone who has the infection. Oral herpes, otherwise known as cold sores, can be spread through kissing or genital contact, but it can also be spread in nonsexual ways. In fact, it is so easily spread that it often runs in families – when one family member gets it, it doesn’t take long for other family members to get it. The majority of people with oral herpes got it as children in completely nonsexual ways.

Which means that anyone considering sexual activity should get tested for sexually transmitted infections. You should also get tested before having sex with any new partner, and it’s a good idea to get tested even if you’re already in a sexual relationship. If you’re in a long-term relationship, you should get tested once a year. And maybe we’re stating the obvious, but it’s not just you who needs to get tested – your partner or potential partners also need to get tested.

What Happens When You Get Tested for Sexually Transmitted Infections?

The interview. It all starts with the interview. Your healthcare provider will probably begin by asking you some questions about your sexual history. These questions may make you feel uncomfortable, but there’s no need to be embarrassed or ashamed – trust us, doctors and nurses have heard and seen it all. It is very important for you to be honest with your healthcare provider – otherwise you won’t get the care you need.

In most cases, your healthcare provider will ask you

    • about your sexual practices – such as how many partners you have, whether you use condoms, and what body parts are used during sex play
    • whether you have any symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection– and to describe the symptoms if you do have any
    • whether you have used over-the-counter medications to treat your symptoms
    • whether you have had symptoms in the past
    • whether you've ever had any sexually transmitted infections
    • whether your partner(s) have any sexually transmitted infections or symptoms of sexually transmitted infections
    • about any drug allergies you may have
    • when your last period was (if you're a female) – to see if you could you be pregnant

If you are experiencing any health problems (even if you don’t think they’re related to your sexual activity), tell your healthcare provider about them in detail. Let them know when the problem started, what you were doing before the problem started, and any other information that might be helpful. Again, don’t withhold information because it’s embarrassing or you think it makes you look bad. All of this information can help your healthcare provider make the correct diagnosis.

If you don’t have any health problems or symptoms of sexually transmitted infections, you still need to tell your healthcare provider if you’ve been sexually active. Sometimes, sexually transmitted infections have no symptoms at all.

Chlamydia:
The “Silent” Infection

Chlamydia is known as the “silent” infection because the majority of infected people have no symptoms. Even the damage can be “silent.” A female may not know she’s had Chlamydia until she tries to become pregnant – at which point she may learn that a case of Chlamydia made her infertile.

Chlamydia is the fastest growing bacterial sexually transmitted infection among teenagers – probably because most infected teens don’t know they have it. Too bad, because Chlamydia is easily treatable.

   

Testing. After the interview, what happens next depends on which infections you may have.

There is no single test for every sexually transmitted infection – tests are specific to each infection. And some infections can be found using different kinds of tests. Your test may include a

    • physical exam – your healthcare provider may look at your genitals and/or your anus for any signs of an infection, such as a rash, sores, warts, or discharge. For females, this exam can be similar to a pelvic exam.
    • blood sample – your healthcare provider may take a blood sample, either with a needle or by pricking the skin to draw drops of blood.
    • urine sample – you may be asked to urinate into a special cup.
    • discharge, tissue, cell, or saliva sample – your healthcare provider will use a swab to collect samples that will be looked at under a microscope.

Sometimes a diagnosis can be made based on your symptoms and/or physical exam. If that’s the case, then treatment can be prescribed right away. Other times, your healthcare provider may need to send a sample to a lab to be tested. If that’s the case, then the results may not be available for several days or weeks.

Testing Procedures

 

Infection

Testing procedure(s)

HIV

  • blood test
  • oral swab test – a special tool is used to test cells from inside the mouth
  • urine test (rarely used)

Note: A diagnosis of HIV is not the same thing as a diagnosis of AIDS. A diagnosis of AIDS is based on the presence of one or more of a variety of conditions and infections related to HIV infection.

Bacterial vaginosis (affects only females)

  • pelvic exam
  • test of vaginal discharge

Chlamydia

  • physical exam
  • test of discharge from the anus,  urethra, or vagina
  • test of a cell sample – cells from the  cervix, penis, vagina, or anus
  • urine test

Cytomegalovirus

  • blood test

Genital warts

  • physical exam – some warts can be seen by the naked eye during a pelvic exam. A special tool called a colposcope may be used to detect warts that are too small to be seen by the naked eye.

Gonorrhea

  • test of discharge from the anus, urethra, or vagina
  • test of a cell sample – cells from the cervix, penis, anus, or throat
  • urine test

Hepatitis B

  • blood test

Herpes

  • blood test
  • test of fluid taken from a herpes sore

Human papilloma virus (HPV)

  • no human papilloma virus test for males
  • test of cell samples from the cervix (to look for precancerous conditions caused by human papilloma virus)

Molluscum contagiosum 

  • physical exam
  • test of a cell sample

Pelvic inflammatory disease (affects only females)

  • pelvic exam
  • blood test
  • test of discharge from the cervix or vagina
  • laparoscopy – a special instrument is inserted through a small cut in the navel to look at the reproductive organs

Pubic lice 

  • physical exam
  • may be self-diagnosed based on symptoms (pubic lice look like tiny crabs)

Scabies

  • physical exam
  • may be self-diagnosed based on symptoms
  • test of a cell sample
  • biopsy may be necessary

Syphilis 

  • blood test
  • test of fluid taken from a syphilis sore

Trichomoniasis

  • test of discharge from the vagina or urethra

Yikes!

Gonorrhea takes 2-7 days after you’re infected before it shows up in a test. Most other infections take weeks before they show up. Some take up to six months. In other words, if have sex on Monday with someone who infects you, and you go to get tested on Tuesday, your test results will probably all be “negative.”

So, if you have sex with someone before you both got tested, it’s smart to get tested in a week and again in six months. In between, you should have no sex at all or you should practice safer sex. Don’t know what we mean by “safer sex”? Then read Safer Sex.

 

Adapted with permission from an article by Louise Lalonde. The original article, “Testing, Testing…”, can be found on www.scarleteen.com. Additional information was obtained from an article by Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The original article, “STD Testing,” can be found on www.plannedparenthood.org.

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