What Are STDs?

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections that can be transmitted through sexual activity and skin-to-skin contact.

  • STDs are caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites.
  • Approximately 20 million new STD infections occur each year in the U.S.
  • Half of all STD diagnoses occur in adolescents and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 years.

The Role of STD Tests

STD tests are used to diagnose specific STDs. Tests may be part of a routine health screening or ordered when a patient experiences signs and symptoms of an STD.

Who should get testing?

Many people with STDs are asymptomatic or experience only mild symptoms of infection. Without testing, people infected with STDs may unknowingly spread the infection to others. STDs can lead to serious health complications, so appropriate STD screening and diagnosis is a major public health concern.

The goal of screening for STDs is to identify and treat people with infections before they develop complications and spread diseases to others. Additionally, screening attempts to identify, test, and treat the sexual partners of people diagnosed with STDs to prevent the continued spread of the infection.

While all sexually active people are at risk for STDs, not everyone needs to be screened for each STD. Screening focuses on people who are at a high risk of becoming infected due to factors such as age, gender, health history, number of sexual partners, and sexual behavior. Doctors can assess an individual’s personal risk factors and determine the most appropriate testing strategy. Below is a brief overview of common STD screening recommendations:

  • Adults and adolescents: Everyone from ages 13 to 64 should be tested for HIV at least once or more as needed based on risk level.
  • Sexually active women: All sexually active women under 25 years old should be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia at least every year. This recommendation also applies to women 25 years and older at an increased risk of STDs due to new or multiple sexual partners, or a partner who has been diagnosed with an STD.
  • Pregnant women: During pregnancy, women should be tested for syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis B. Pregnant women with additional risk factors should also be tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea.
  • Sexually active gay and bisexual men: Men in this group should be tested at least once a year for syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. Those with multiple or anonymous partners should be tested more frequently, such as every three or six months. This group may also benefit from more frequent HIV testing.
  • Unsafe sex and injectable drug users: Anyone who shares injection drug equipment or has sex without protection such as a condom should be tested for HIV at least once a year.

More STD Tests

Getting Tested for STDs

STD tests are usually ordered by a doctor. Before prescribing a test, the doctor asks about your risk factors for STDs, including your sexual and health history. The doctor also asks about any signs or symptoms of STD infections to determine the most appropriate testing strategy.

While STD testing is often performed in a hospital or doctor’s office, many people get tested for STDs at clinics and other community health programs. These programs may offer free and confidential STD testing.

When interpreting STD test results, it’s important to remember that STDs have window periods, the time between when you are infected with an STD and when it shows up on a test. If an STD test is taken too soon after infection, the results will not be accurate and the test will need to be repeated after the window period ends.

Costs of STD testing

The cost of an STD test will vary by location and test type. Some clinics, usually community or nonprofit clinics, offer free or low-cost testing. Labs, clinics, and at-home testing companies may accept insurance to cover or lower your cost of testing.

Lab testing fees for a complete STD panel are typically around $150 to $380, though your actual cost depends on the tests included in the panel, the lab, and your insurance coverage.

Types of sample collection

The sample for an STD test will depend on the particular test you’re taking. Blood, urine, vaginal or anal swab, and saliva are the most common specimens used for STD tests. The type of sample, such as an oral std test, will depend on the symptoms and type of test.

Getting test results

Patients may receive STD test results during a follow-up appointment with their doctor, over the phone, or through online medical charts. It’s important to discuss results with a health care professional who can help you manage your risk for STDs and answer your questions about test results.

If STD test results are positive, begin treatment as early as possible to reduce the chance of health complications. Your doctor can help you make a plan for sharing your results with sexual partners who may be infected and can discuss retesting that may be necessary after treatment is completed.

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