Written by: Ashley Paul
Fact-Checked By: Dr. Noor Ali, MD, MPH, CPH
STIs and STDs are undoubtedly one of the least sexy things that can occur after sex. Imagine reclining back on pillows while enjoying your post-orgasm glow and then being jolted back to reality with the uncanny thought, “What if he (or she) has an STD?”
Fortunately, because of medical science we have ways to avoid this conundrum from happening in the first place. STI and STD screening are just as fundamental as making sure you have healthy blood pressure or low cholesterol. It also helps protect your partner from contracting infections from you and vice versa. Getting tested together is a bonding experience and can help build trust and strengthen the relationship.
What Is The Difference Between An STI And An STD?
Although many people use these terms interchangeably they are not. STIs are sexually transmitted infections and STDs are sexually transmitted diseases. Interestingly enough, an STI gets renamed as an STD if it causes symptoms. Otherwise, there is really no difference.
What You Should Get Tested For?
Unlike men, women are more prone to being asymptomatic because of their anatomy. It’s easier to see physical symptoms like redness, pus or sores on a penis rather than inside a vagina.
Another factor is that it’s normal for discharge, itching and spotting to change throughout a woman's cycle. It’s difficult for women to tell if their symptoms are indicative of an STI because symptoms can be so vague that they can sometimes mimic innocuous variations. That’s all the more reason to get routine testing by your gynecologist if you're sexually active. Testing should include:
- Gonorrhea and chlamydia
- Genital herpes
Gonorrhea is a very common bacterial infection that can be treated with antibiotics. Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium infects the mucous membranes of the cervix, uterus, urethra, and fallopian tubes in women and for men it colonizes the urethra.
Symptoms for women include abnormal discharge, painful or burning sensations while urinating, soreness, pelvic or stomach pain, bleeding, spotting in between periods, anal itching, and uncomfortable bowel movements.
If left untreated it can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), scar tissue that blocks and permanently damages the fallopian tubes, ectopic pregnancy, and infertility.
Chlamydia is caused by becoming infected with chlamydia trachomatis bacteria during unprotected oral, vaginal, or anal sex with a person who is already infected.
For us ladies, the most common symptoms experienced are very similar to gonorrhea – abnormal discharge, pelvic soreness, pain during urination etc. If left untreated this can result in scar tissue around the fallopian tubes, risk of ectopic pregnancy, and infertility, just like with gonorrhea.
Testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea is pretty straightforward – your OBGYN will swab your cervix (or request a urine test) then send the sample to a laboratory to be analyzed. Both of these STIs are easily cured with antibiotics. Living in the era of medical science is truly a blessing!
It’s important to get screened at least once a year for gonorrhea and chlamydia, especially if you're over the age of 25 and have a new partner or multiple partners. This also makes sense if your partner has other lovers.
If you're between the ages of 13 and 64, it’s important to add HIV testing to your annual OBGYN exams. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system. If it’s not treated in time it can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
HIV is a lifelong disease. It may be necessary to request the test depending on your doctor’s office. Testing is done by taking a blood sample and sending it to a lab. Although there are treatments for HIV, there is currently no cure for it. The good news is that Moderna announced in January 2022 that it has started clinical trials for an experimental HIV vaccine.
It’s also a great idea to request a blood test for Hepatitis C. This is a serious STD because it often has no symptoms until it manifests as an advanced disease. Hepatitis C is a virus that is spread through blood; being infected by it causes liver inflammation and serious organ damage.
It can be spread during sexual intercourse, especially via anal sex. Having sex during menstruation may also increase the risk of transmission of the virus from men to women. Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus so it makes sense that it can spread through a woman’s period blood. Men are less likely to get infected but it still can happen.
Syphilis is another bacterial infection that’s spread by sexual contact. It’s caused by being exposed to the bacterium Treponema pallidum. White patches in the mouth, vulva or anus are tell-tale signs, as well as flu-like symptoms like fatigue, swollen glands, joint pain, and a high temperature.
Your OBGYN will either swab your genitals or collect a blood sample. It's spread by having contact with the sores, which are usually painless. It spreads easily to others and can be very serious if it’s not cured. The bacteria can infect your vagina, anus, and the lips of the mouth. For males it infects the penis, scrotum, and lips.
Untreated syphilis can cause infertility in both women and men. The later stage symptoms are super serious as this disease touches all body systems and can result in nerve and organ damage.
Gentital herpes is a tricky one because it can be spread without any symptoms at all. This virus causes sores on the genitals and even on the mouth. Sores can also be hidden inside the vagina, making it difficult for a woman to self-diagnose. The sores can be painful.
Your OBGYN can test you for it by gently scraping the tissue from a sore for testing. Blood tests are often inaccurate.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is one of the most common STDs. Although it is typically non-threatening and can go away on its own, some types can cause cancer or genital warts.
With more than 200 different types of HPV, it makes sense why women need to get tested for it. There are 40 sub-types that can affect the cervix, vulva, vagina, rectum, anus, mouth, throat, penis, and scrotum.
It can be spread via sexual contact (oral, vaginal and anal). Before you panic, know that gential HPV in particular is super common. If a person has had sex, chances are they already have it and just don’t know it. HPV typically has no symptoms at all and is rarely dangerous.
The kinds of HPV that can cause cancer or genital warts are:
- Type 6 and 11: These ones tend to cause genital warts. Luckily these are in the category of low-risk HPV because they do not cause cancer.
- Types 16 and 18 are the culprits for the bulk of cancer cases. These types of HPV are considered high-risk because they can cause cancer in the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat. Both of these kinds can and do happen to people of all genders.
An HPV test is performed in a similar manner as a Pap test. Your OBGYN will insert a speculum into your vagina to allow for the cervix to be sampled with a polyethylene brush. The collected cells are then sent to a lab. I’ve had this done numerous times and do not have a high pain tolerance so trust me, it’s not painful whatsoever.
If you have vaginismus or experience any other type of condition that causes vaginal pain please tell your OBGYN prior to the test.
HPV tests should be done every 5 years for women between 25 and 65 years old. If your test is positive it does not mean you automatically have cancer. It means that you need to get yearly HPV tests to monitor it.
If HPV doesn’t go away on its own a colposcopy, which is a type of cancer test, will be performed in order to find abnormal cells on the cervix. A colposcopy rarely hurts but if you get a biopsy it’s normal to expect a little cramping and spotting which goes away on its own. Vaginal pain can last for one or two days while light bleeding can be expected to last for a few days.
LEEP and cryotherapy are highly effective procedures used to treat abnormal or cancerous conditions caused by HPV. A LEEP procedure is necessary when the results of a Pap smear or colposcopy indicate the presence of these abnormal cells. A wire loop heated by an electrical current destroys the cells or warts.
Cryotherapy is an alternative procedure that uses liquid nitrogen to freeze off and destroy precancerous cells on the cervix. Both methods are safe and deliver great results, however, for more severe lesions LEEP may have an edge over cryotherapy.
How To Get Your Partner To Get Themselves Checked
Broaching the topic of STD testing with your partner can be an awkward experience. Many people get nervous and feel unpleasant discussing the issue, but the only way you can completely mess it up is to not bring it up at all.
According to the 2019 STD Surveillance Report there were more than 2.5 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis reported in 2019 alone.
What better reason could you want to sit down with your partner and have an open, honest, and non-judgmental conversation about whether or not they have been tested?
If your partner feels scared or embarrassed to get tested on their own you can suggest going to get tested together. Even if you’ve been tested recently, getting tested together could make your partner feel supported.
Tactic 1: Embrace Honesty
If you’re feeling nervous about things by all means go ahead and tell them! Chances are they’ll understand completely and the mutual empathy will be an excellent icebreaker.
Ashwini Nadkarni, M.D. — an associate psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA — explains, “Anxiety about the topic can stem from people being afraid to offend their partner or concerns about being judged for making the request.”
Tactic 2: Be Nonjudgemental
It’s all about making the request for information not sound like a personal attack. A smooth antidote for this can be anything like:
“Don’t take this personally, I ask everyone I’ve dated about STI testing.”
“I don’t want to make you feel judged in any way.”
“I care about both of us deeply and want us to both be safe.”
Tactic 3: Share Your Own Testing History
If you get tested annually or get checked before entering a new relationship/hookup, go ahead and tell them. It will help normalize what’s going on and take away the stigma many of us feel. Try saying something like:
“I’m passionate about getting myself tested routinely.”
“If you have any questions about my testing history I’m here to tell you everything.”
Tactic 4: Add The Facts
Knowledge is power and knowledge is also pleasure. Make sure that you are fact-savvy before talking to bae. There is quite a knowledge gap among human beings when it comes to STI/STD awareness.
Dr. Nadkarni weighs in with some wisdom on the topic, “Educating your partner can help to take the anxiety out of the matter by making the issue about both of you, rather than just one of you.”
The CDC is on your side when it comes to expressing the importance of sexual health – it reports that we have around 20 million new STIs reported each year. Show him or her the above link in a relaxed, non stressful environment.
What if your partner has no idea how frequently they need to be screened? There are many elements that determine what is appropriate for a person, such as gender, age, orientation, as well as lifestyle factors like monogamy versus polyamory.
Typically a sexually active person who is in a monogamous relationship ought to get STI screened annually. Definitely read this link and make sure that your partner reads it too.
Getting Tested For STIs/STDs Improves Your Sex Life
Human decency means caring about how our actions (or inactions, rather) affect the ones we love. If your partner is not compliant with STI screening, please do yourself a favor and take it as a giant bright red flag.
You should never, ever have sex with a person who doesn’t care about your bodily health and safety.
There’s nothing sexier than being with someone who is open, mature and responsible. Your sex life will improve dramatically if you and your partner mutually choose to value STI/STD testing.
Why? The answer is trust. By sharing your body during sex, you are allowing them to see and access you in your most emotionally and physically vulnerable state.
If you can’t trust them, chances are the sex will not be enjoyable. Instead of worrying about whether they have an STI, consider this – it will be so comfortingly erotic to know that there’s nothing to worry about.
And if it turns out there is something to worry about there are plenty of ways to minimize the spread of infection from one partner to another. If you don’t feel comfortable with their STI or vice versa, then consider it dodging a bullet.