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How STI Tests Work

The abbreviation “STI” stands for “sexually transmitted infection,” and it is replacing the term “sexually transmitted disease” (or “STD”) as a more accurate description. Many sexually transmitted infections do not cause symptoms of disease; nevertheless, they can eventually make the infected person sick if they are not treated. Some infections may only be a problem when they are passed on to another person. That’s why it’s important for every sexually active person to get tested for STIs.

STI tests look for evidence of a specific viral, bacterial, or parasitic infection that is commonly passed through sexual contact. Common viruses include HIV, HPV, herpes, and hepatitis, sometimes called the “four Hs.” Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are all bacterial infections. Parasitic infections include lice, scabies, and trichomoniasis. Unlike bacteria and parasites, viruses cannot usually be cured; however, early detection and treatment can often keep the virus from becoming a serious health problem.

It’s important to understand that in many cases, the test isn’t looking for the actual infecting agent in the body; rather, it is looking for signs of an immunological response to the infection. When the patient’s immune system encounters a virus or bacteria, it produces antibodies to fight the infection. Many STI tests are designed to detect specific antibodies. For that reason, it takes some time after exposure before an STI can be accurately diagnosed. The length of time before a test is effective differs from one infection to another. Gonorrhea could show up as early as one week after exposure, but it might take six months before an HIV test is accurate.

STI tests should be done at least once per year but more often when people have new multiple partners. It is also a good idea for both partners to have an STI test before beginning a new relationship. While condoms, when used correctly, are 98% effective in preventing STIs, most couples do not use them correctly 100% of the time. Therefore, people should consider getting tested even if they have not had sex without a condom.

A regular physician or a gynecologist can perform STI testing. Many health department clinics and community-based clinics offer the service as well. To learn more information about getting tested for STIs, check out Makobi Scribe.