How Do I Know if I Have an STD?

You Need to Get Tested

Nervous man in hospital gown sitting on examining table
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One of the most frequent questions I get asked on my website is, "How do I know if I have an STD?" My answer is always the same - you need an STD test. As much as you might like to hear otherwise, STD tests are the only way you can be certain whether you have an STD. Why is getting an STD test so important? There are two main reasons.The first is for people who are worried because they have STD symptoms.

The second is for people who don't know whether to worry because they don't. 

  1. Many STD symptoms are non-specific. This means that any symptoms that you have could be caused by a number of different STDs, They could even be caused another disease entirely! The only way to be certain is to get tested. Otherwise, any treatment a doctor prescribes isn't particularly likely to work. 
  2. Most people with STDs have no symptoms. That means they look, smell, and feel exactly the same as they would without having an STD. However, they can still pass their infections onto their partners. They may also experience long-term consequences, such as infertility.The only way to identify these hidden STDs is a test.

In short, the only way to be certain about your STD status is to get STD tests. You also need know what you've been tested for. Otherwise, you may assume that you've been tested for something when you haven't.

What Will Happen at the Doctor's Office?

When you go to a doctor to be tested for STDs, they may start by asking you questions about your risk factors. After assessing what diseases you are at risk for, they will test you for those conditions. Everyone should be tested, at least once, for HIV. Anyone with a new partner or multiple partners should be screened for chlamydia and gonorrhea.

Testing for other STDs is usually done at the doctor’s discretion. Syphilis screening, for example, is recommended for pregnant women and certain high risk groups. These include prison inmates, men who have high risk sex with men, and patients with another STD. In the absence of symptoms, however, other people are not usually tested for syphilis. This is because of the risk of false positives.

That said, if you know you are at risk for a particular disease or just want more comprehensive screening, speak up. The best way to make sure you’re screened is to ask.

Public clinics, such as Planned Parenthood, frequently STD test as a standard part of a yearly exam. Unfortunately, many private doctors do not. Therefore you may think you’re safe because your doctor hasn’t told you that you have an infection. However, it’s possible that you haven’t been tested at all. You should always ask what screening tests your doctor has performed. Don’t hesitate to ask for additional tests if you think they are appropriate.

STD testing is often, but not always, covered by insurance. It is also sometimes available for free at a clinic.

Will STD Testing Hurt?

These days, most STDs can be tested for with urine or blood tests. These are quick and relatively painless. It is rare that STD testing requires a urethral swab in men. Women aren't so lucky. They often still need to have a vaginal swab performed to test for certain bacterial infections. However, the vaginal swab shouldn't be uncomfortable. Women who are nervous may be able to ask their doctors if they can do their own swab.

Did You Know: Pap smears aren't STD tests. They look for precursors to cervical cancer. However, an HPV test is sometimes done at the same time as a Pap smear.

Below, you will find links that describe how doctors test for some of the most common STDs.

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