Do I Have an STD?

Male doctor sitting with female patient by window, side view
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Question: Do I Have an STD?

Answer: To find out, you're going to need to get a test...

One of the most frequent questions I get is, "Do I have an STD?" Unfortunately, as I tell people, there's no way for me to diagnose that online. It's hard enough for a doctor to be able to determine which STD you have, if any, when you're in the room. With certain STDs the symptoms are so recognizable that they can be diagnosed by eye.

However, clues that obvious are rare. Most STD symptoms are so non-specific that it's impossible to diagnose what sexually transmitted disease is causing them. Sometimes it's hard to tell if they're even the result of a STD at all.

In other words, there's only one way to know if you have an STD. You can't rely on seeing whether you have symptoms. You can't rely on feeling safe because you don't have symptoms. You have to go to a doctor and get tested.

The Problem of the Hidden Epidemic

People often assume that they would know if they have an STD. They're wrong. A huge number of people with STDs will never have any symptoms. The vast majority of STDs are asymptomatic. Therefore, the only way to be certain that you are not infected is to be regularly screened for STDs. How often you should be screened depends on your risk profile. However, at the very least you should always consider getting screened before a new sexual partner.

Screening isn't perfect. Not every doctor tests for every STD. There are also STDs that it can take some time for a person to test positive for. However, it's far more accurate than any other way of determining STD status.

So to answer the question, how do you know if you have an STD? You don't, unless you get tested.

How do you know you don't have an STD? You don't, unless you're regularly screened.

Symptoms such as itching, rashes, or discomfort are a good sign that something may be wrong. However, even a doctor worried personally about having an STD would need to run tests on herself to be certain what STD she had. Just as importantly, if she had no symptoms, she'd know she still needed to be tested to make certain she was fine.

What is the Difference Between STD Screening and STD Testing?

From the perspective of the laboratory, STD screening and STD testing are basically the same thing. They use the same tests to detect the same diseases on the same samples. The difference is more in how and why those tests are run.

STD screening is done on a regular basis. There is no assumption that STDs may be present. It's a preventative technique to manage risk and worry. It's like cholesterol screening. You start before anything is wrong. The goal is to keep on top of any issues before they become problems.

In contrast, STD testing is done when someone is worried they might have been exposed to a disease. The person may want to be tested for a specific STD or "tested for everything." That likely depends on whether they know that they are at risk or something specific or if they just had risky sex.

Did you know: STD testing is not part of most people's annual medical exam.

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