How to get the most out of your next STI test appointment

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Raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimized by a cotton swab.

If you’ve ever had your throat swabbed for strep or your nose swabbed for COVID-19, I expect to see hands!

Now that we’re all in the know, let’s talk logistics: Many sexually transmitted infection (STI) tests are done with a swab. That’s right, the thing we’ve been doing for 2 years may actually come in handy at your next STI test.

Although you can test for some of the most common STIs – like gonorrhea and chlamydia – by urinating into a cup or having your blood drawn, these tests cannot tell you or an infection is.

Enter: oral, anal and genital swab tests.

The type of sex you have and who you have it with are the real determinants of which STI tests you should get and when.

For example, if you have a sexual partner and you never kiss, rub, or hit each other, you probably only need to have urine and blood tests done once or twice a year.

But if you’re like me and tend to kiss multiple cuties on a night out, regular oral swab testing is crucial. Herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), which is commonly associated with cold sores, and human papillomavirus (HPV) are easily spread through open-mouthed kissing.

The same goes for other sexual acts.

If you give oral sex to one partner, receive penetrative anal sex or oral-anal (or rimming) sex from another partner, and have penetrative vaginal or anal sex with another partner, a combination of oral, anal and genital swab testing is underway. Ordered.

This is because each area of ​​the body has been exposed to a different level of risk.

Your level of risk generally depends on whether:

  • you used a barrier method, such as an internal or external condom
  • the barrier method has been applied correctly and used before skin-to-skin contact begins
  • the barrier method has broken or has been used incorrectly
  • you know your current STI status and that of your partner(s)
  • you and your partner(s) regularly and correctly use preventive medications (such as PreP for HIV) or treatments (such as oral acyclovir for herpes)

Swab tests for STIs are relatively simple to administer. Much like a COVID-19 test, a cotton swab is inserted into the area and swirled for about 15 seconds to collect a sample of cells.

But advocating for testing is another story. Since swab tests aren’t considered standard — even though they should be — you’ll likely need to ask for them, especially when making an appointment or talking to a healthcare professional.

While some clinicians may agree to administer swab tests right away, others may ask you to explain more about why you want the test and why you think it’s necessary.

Consider saying something like:

  • “Hey doc, can we do an oral swab test in addition to my blood work? I want to make sure I don’t have any oral STIs.
  • “My partner and I have started seeing other people, so I want to get a full STI screening, including oral, vaginal and anal swab tests.”
  • “Can you tell me a bit more about penile swab tests? I read an article about them recently, and I think I’d like to do one just to be sure.

What if your clinician disagrees? It might be time to find a new one. It doesn’t matter whether you receive care at your local health department, university health center or primary care clinic, you deserve to be listened to and have your health care needs met.

The front desk people should be able to help you book your next appointment with another clinician. You can also make an appointment online or by phone.

Generally, you should get tested for STIs:

  • at least once a year, regardless of your anatomy or relationship status
  • each time you see a new or different sexual partner
  • if you have oral, anal or vaginal sex without a barrier method
  • if your genitals or buttocks are touched, rubbed or jostled by a partner before implementing a barrier method
  • if you have sexual contact with someone who has an STI or whose STI status you do not know

My advice: take advantage of free or low-cost STI testing in your area and get tested as often as possible for your personal situation.

If it’s urine, blood and swab tests once a year, GREAT! If it’s urine and blood tests every 6 months, AMAZING! No matter the schedule or combination, some ITS tests are 1000% better than no ITS tests.

Sexual health and wellness editors Gabrielle Kassel and Adrienne Santos-Longhurst are here to tell you more with a stellar lineup of articles for STI Awareness Week, which runs from April 10 to April 16.

First of all, Kassel is giving us all a much needed reminder that yes, we are still in the midst of a pandemic. Regardless of what elected officials say, COVID-19 remains a threat to even the healthiest of us – and it’s affecting how we’re tested for STIs.

The pandemic has also changed the way we think about safer sex. Historically, safer sex has been defined as reducing the risk of STI transmission during couple (or multi-partner) sexual activity. Safer sex now includes reducing the risk of transmission of STIs and COVID-19.

(Have questions about getting the COVID-19 vaccine? See our article on vaccine safety.)

To learn more about which STI tests you should take, Kassel offers a deep dive into non-genital STI tests and anal STI tests, in particular.

She’s also compiled our comprehensive guide to STI testing with crucial information about community organizations that offer testing and approved free or low-cost locations in the upper, middle, and lower states of each state and in Washington, D.C., DC.

Santos-Longhurst rounds out this year’s collection with a comprehensive list of who to share your STI test results with and how to go about it. Be sure to check out the super helpful templates for texting or talking on the phone or in person about your results.

Something else on your mind? Our sex, relationships, and identity hub covers everything from pandemic-related relationship issues and advice on anal sex to exploring your gender, body neutrality, and more.


Tess Catlett is sex and relationships editor at Healthline, covering all things sticky, scary and sweet. Find her unpacking her inherited trauma and crying over Harry Styles on Twitter.

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