STI Testing 101 – Everything You Need To Know

Is it the fear of the unknown, or the awkwardness that has you putting off that STI test? We’re taking a look at exactly what’s involved

We as Irish can be a little bit too relaxed when it comes to our health and seeing a doctor. That flu will go away so I won’t bother going to my GP. That crippling pain in my side hasn’t been as prominent lately so I won’t go to A&E. So it’s even more of an issue when it comes to sexual health because symptoms are so rare.

If you are or have attended college in the last couple of years, you’ll know that Students’ Unions now place a huge emphasis on sexual health awareness and lots of resources such as contraception and regular free STI checks. So while many people may go for the test in college, once they graduate, it’s completely forgotten about. But so long as you’re having sex with multiple people, sexual health testing should be a priority. So why are we putting it off?

One of the most common reasons adults don’t keep up regular appointments is lack of awareness, lack of conversation, and perhaps even fear of the unknown. Dr. Aishling Loy, a sexual health doctor at Himerus Heath, says that because many STIs are without symptoms, many people totally forget about the importance of check-ups. “Many people wrongly believe that STIs cause symptoms, or that if you had an STI you would know.  However, the opposite is true, especially in women. Most STIs have no symptoms. Another problem is that often people only screen when they have what they perceive as a risk, rather than realising that any unprotected sex is a risk unless both partners have had a negative STI screen.”

So when, and how often you should you be booking your STI test? “It’s recommended that people have an STI screen at least once a year if they have had new partners, even if they have no symptoms,” Dr. Loy explains.  That said, there are also things to look out for. “Altered discharge, abnormal bleeding, any rashes, bumps, lumps or ulcers in the genital area should be checked out. If you’ve had abnormal cervical smears, pelvic pain, pain or discomfort having sex, fertility problems or if you are just anxious and want peace of mind these are all reasons to get checked.”

Another reason that people put off getting the all-important test is that they don’t know what it entails. But Dr. Loy stresses that it’s very straightforward. “There are two ways we can screen. If someone is asymptomatic and just wants peace of mind then they can have a blood test and then pop into the toilet and do their own self-taken vaginal swab so it’s very straightforward. If they have symptoms we normally have a consultation first, to chat about potential risks and concerns. We then do an examination usually using a speculum, which is like having a smear test. It is generally painless and takes under five minutes. After, we take a blood sample for completion of the full screen.”

A standard STI screen will test for various infections, but the more information you provide, the more accurate your test and your results will be. Generally speaking, a routine STI screen is for HIV, Hepatitis B, syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea.  If patients have specific symptoms such as unusual discharge or symptoms of pelvic inflammatory disease or genital ulceration, additional tests for trichomonas, bacterial vaginosis, herpes, mycoplasma, candida are carried out. So it’s tailored to each individual patient if they have symptoms and also, clinical examination will add a great deal to the diagnosis.

If cost is an issue, there are various free clinics that provide testing which you can look up online or be referred to by your doctor. Free clinics are great for general check-ups and peace of mind.

However, if you’re particularly concerned or would prefer a quick test, you can visit a GP or clinic like Himerus Health where Dr. Loy works. “There are excellent free STI clinics all over the country, such as the guide clinic in St James’s hospital in Dublin city, unfortunately, though there is a huge demand.  At Himerus Health (www.himerushealth.ie) the cost is €130 for a routine STI screen €100 for an express STI screen and results are available in 3-5 working days, we also can do a rapid HIV test whereby you find out your HIV results in 10 minutes.”

Of course, the fear may well be that something does show up, and in this case, it’s always better to know so that you can begin to deal with it. So if you do a test and something comes up, Dr. Loy ensures you’ll be well looked after. “Generally when patients find out they have an STI they are upset. We treat all STIs and offer advice on future implications of being diagnosed.  The good news is that most are treatable infections,” she stresses but adds that it’s so important that you fully understand your diagnosis.  “A personal bugbear of mine is when patients are given a diagnosis – for example, genital herpes – and it is not fully explained to them.

There are many patients who have a limited understanding and due to embarrassment have relied on the internet for their advice. When they come and receive proper education and advice the psychological burden is often minimised.” So once you know just how important, and just how effortless getting tested is, it’s time to book that appointment.

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