If you're sexually active, getting checks for sexually transmissible infections – STIs – are an important part of looking after yourself.
For some women, it can feel like an awkward task and can easily slide to the bottom of your to-do list.
To help make the process a little easier, here we'll delve into exactly what happens in an STI check, step by step, so you can go into it with information and confidence, knowing what happens next.
When would you have an STI check?
There are many reasons why and when an STI check is a good idea:
You may be worried you have an STI – you may have found out that a current or previous sexual partner has an STI, or you may be experiencing symptoms – so you make an appointment with your GP or at a sexual health clinic.
You may be visiting the doctor for another health issue – for example, for a cervical screening test – and your GP suggests an STI check.
You may have regular STI checks as part of your healthcare routine.
Women who are under 30 years of age and are having sex are advised to have an STI check at least once a year. However, there are many other reasons why you may need regular STI checks more often, or when you're aged over 30.
If you're not sure when to have STI checks, or how often, talk to your doctor – everyone's situation is different and it's important you get the checks that are right for you.
The process: step by step
First up, when you're getting an STI check, your doctor will ask you some questions. If it's your first time at that particular medical clinic, this usually starts off with some general health questions.
After this, your doctor will ask you about your sexual history. Some of these questions can be quite personal, so it's good to know ahead of time what you may be asked. It's important to answer these questions as honestly as possible; if you feel unsure or uncomfortable at any time, mention this to your doctor.
Keep in mind, your doctor isn't asking these questions to be nosy or to judge you – these questions are part of every STI check. The doctor is working out what your risk is and which tests might be needed for your individual situation.
These questions may include:
Have you had an STI check in the past? When was your last check?
In the past six months, how many people have you had sex with?
Do you have sex with men? Do you have sex with women? Do you have sex with both? Do have sex with transgender people?
Do you have vaginal sex? Do you have oral sex? Do you have anal sex?
Do you use contraception? How often do you use condoms?
Do you have any symptoms? Many STIs are silent – they don't cause symptoms – but some women can experience painful sex, painful urination, a difference in vaginal discharge, or bleeding.
When was your last period? Was it a normal period?
Have you injected drugs?
Do you have any tattoos or body piercings?
The low-down on testing
After these questions are over, it's time to collect the samples for testing.
Depending on your symptoms and risks for different STIs, your doctor will advise which tests are needed and how the samples will be collected.
An STI test usually involves giving a urine sample or having a vaginal examination.
If you have had unprotected oral or anal sex, a throat swab or anal swab may be required. A swab involves the collection of a sample of secretions being produced in that body part. Sometimes you can collect this yourself – your doctor will advise.
For the testing of some STIs, such as hepatitis, syphilis and HIV, a sample of blood is needed. The sample is usually taken from a vein in the arm and involves 1-2 needles.
Going for an STI test doesn't mean you will be tested for all STIs. STI testing is different for different people, which is why the doctor asked you the questions previously.
What happens next?
After collecting your samples, your appointment is nearly over. If there is time, you may like to discuss any questions or concerns about contraception or sexual health with your doctor.
It usually takes between 1-2 weeks for your test results to come back. How you receive your test results can vary. Sometimes you may need to make another appointment, other times you can receive your results over the phone or via email/letter.
If your test result is positive for an STI, you will need to return to your doctor to discuss treatment. In the case of chlamydia and gonorrhea, treatment is as simple as an antibiotic prescription.
Your sexual partners will also need to be tested and, if necessary, treated, otherwise you could keep re-infecting each other or others.
Finding out you have an STI can be distressing. However, not knowing and possibly infecting other people as well as putting your long-term health at risk is a far scarier thought. Your doctor will help to guide you through the process.
Still feeling embarrassed or unsure?
If you're still feeling a little unsure about going for an STI check, here are some more quick tips that might help make it easier:
Make an appointment with your doctor about something else and then bring it up with them. For example, you could say to your GP, "I came to see you because my leg is sore (or I need a new prescription), but I also may need an STI check."
Remember, STI checks are a normal part of healthcare – doctors do them all the time. Your medical records and results are private and kept totally confidential.
Consider possibly going to a women's health clinic or sexual health centre for an STI test instead of your regular doctor. These centres specialise in STI checks and sexual health and may feel more comfortable for you.
To find out more about STIs, including symptoms, management options and how to protect yourself, read STIs: what you need to know or listen to this recent podcast.