Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) carry an undue amount of stigma, and they shouldn’t. The fact is, it’s possible for someone to pick up an STI even if they have never engaged in sexual contact. This is rare, but it speaks to the highly communicable nature of STIs. To put it in perspective, in 2008, the CDC released a study that demonstrated the widespread reality of STIs. Specifically, it found that between 25 and 40 percent of all teenage girls had at least one STI. That’s a staggering number, but even more worrisome is what those STIs can do if they are not caught early. STIs are often asymptomatic, at least at first. If they are not treated as soon as possible, though, they can progress in debilitating ways.
Who should undergo STI screening?
One of the most mistaken beliefs about STIs is that they only affect people who engage in unsafe sex. While it’s true that unsafe sex practices will increase the chances of contracting an STI, some can spread with simple skin to skin contact. In fact, a large portion of people with cold sores were initially infected while in childhood, after being exposed to someone else with them. Even a hug is enough to spread cold sores in this case.
Many STIs also spread from mother to child during pregnancy, and exposure to the mother’s body fluids during birth can also expose the child to a disease. In short, STI screening should not be limited to people who only seem to fit the classic high-risk profile. The CDC lists these guidelines for STI screening:
- Everyone aged 13-64 should undergo at least one HIV screening during their lifetime. HIV can spread from mother to child, so some people may have it without ever engaging in sexual contact with someone who has the disease. As HIV is capable of severe, life-threatening complications, it is something that must be screened for if there is any reason to believe it is present.
- All sexually active women younger than 25, and women over 25 with several risk factors should be screened annually for chlamydia, gonorrhea and HPV. Those risk factors include having multiple sexual partners, having a new sexual partner, or having sex with someone who has an STI.
- All pregnant women should be screened for syphilis, HIV and hepatitis B, as these have the potential to transmit to the child during pregnancy or birth. Pregnant women with the aforementioned risk factors should also be screened for gonorrhea and chlamydia. Repeat testing may be needed in some cases, to ensure the ongoing health of the child is protected.
- All gay and bisexual men should be screened at least once a year for gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis. If these men have multiple or anonymous partners, more frequent STI screening, such as every three to six months, may be suggested. Frequent HIV testing is almost always recommended as well.
- Anyone engaging in unsafe sex or using intravenous drugs with shared needles should be screened at least once every year.
STI screening is usually a simple process, consisting of a urine, cheek swab or blood test in most cases. If needed, a physician may instead take a sample of fluid from a sore or from discharge. It is generally a painless procedure that can be done in moments.
What symptoms may indicate an STI?
STIs rarely cause symptoms right away, lying dormant for weeks, months, even years before they began presenting. In many cases, the patient may be asymptomatic, meaning they can pass on the disease without realizing they even have it. If everyone was asymptomatic, then perhaps STIs wouldn’t be such a concern, but this is far from the case. In fact, some STI symptoms are debilitating and their complications permanent. Some of the most common STI symptoms include:
- Bumps or sores emerging near or on the genitals. They may also be located on the thighs or on the buttocks.
- Irritation, swelling, itching or pain on or around the penis, anus, vagina or vulva.
- Unusual discharge from the vagina or penis.
- Burning or irritation during urination. More frequent urination may also be present.
- Typical flu-like symptoms, which include fever, fatigue, aching and swollen lymph nodes. Alone, these symptoms aren’t enough to indicate an STI, but they are commonly present when someone is suffering from one.
If these symptoms are present, it is time to ask for an STI screening.
Why should someone request STI screening?
There are important reasons for a patient to check on their sexual health, beyond treating the immediate symptoms. It’s true that STI screening does inform a physician as to the most effective treatment for an STI, and fortunately, most can be cured. But even when they cannot be cured, they can be treated to an extent.
This treatment is enormously important, because if not treated, some STIs will progress in debilitating ways. For example, syphilis can be treated with antibiotics when caught early. If it is allowed to progress, though, it will eventually result in severe or fatal neurological or cardiovascular complications.
Several STIs, in both men and women, are also capable of causing infertility if left untreated. This is a primary concern for women suffering from chlamydia, as it is frequently asymptomatic. Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) is another severe complication resulting from untreated STIs, and can result in chronic pain or even cancer.
But getting STI screening is also about protecting other people. Testing is discreet and quick, and can be done privately. Transmitting an STI can be a major source of conflict in a relationship and can badly affect the health of a partner, so it should be avoided at all costs.
STI screening is an essential component of preventative healthcare. When administered early enough, it can provide peace of mind and help eradicate a number of serious health conditions.