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Getting tested for STIs

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are any kind of bacterial or viral infection that can be passed on through unprotected sexual contact. They can have a number of signs and symptoms however some STIs have no symptoms, and if left untreated can lead to infertility.

It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve had sex or how many partners you’ve had; anyone can get an STI. If you’ve had unprotected sex, don’t wait and hope for the best, have an STI test as soon as you can – it’s the only way you can be sure. You will also need to consider emergency contraception.

If you are worried that you might have a sexually transmitted infection (STI), you can get free advice and testing from:

You can search for your nearest sexual health service or visit SXT. Contraception and sexual health services such as Brook are free and confidential, including for people under the age of 16. Health professionals work to strict guidelines and won’t tell anyone else about your visit unless they believe you're at serious risk of immediate harm. Find out more about Brook’s confidentiality policy.

It's always best to call a service before you go, to find out what the opening times are and whether you need an appointment or if you can just drop in.

What will an STI test involve?

First of all, the staff at the clinic (it could be a doctor or nurse) will discuss with you what tests they think you will need and these tests will probably depend on how you answer some questions about your medical and sexual health.

These questions will include; when you last had sex, whether you’ve had any unprotected sex and whether you have any symptoms. It is recommended that you answer these questions as honestly as possible so you can get the help and advice you need. And there's no need to be embarrassed! The people who work in sexual health clinics have seen and heard it all. Trust us!

The STI tests might involve

  • Giving a urine (wee) sample
  • Giving a blood sample
  • Taking swabs from the urethra (the tube urine comes out of)
  • Swabs from the vagina (you can often take these yourself)
  • An examination of (a look at) your genitals

These tests and examinations are nothing to worry about and the doctor or nurse will help you to feel comfortable.

Here's a bit more about each type of test:

Swabs: The swab looks like a small cotton bud which is wiped over the parts of the body that could be infected. This could be inside the vagina or from the tip of the penis. Very often you can take the swab from inside the vagina yourself. A doctor or nurse may take the swab from the tip of the penis or if you have had oral or anal sex then a swab may be taken from either your throat or rectum. Taking the swab may be slightly uncomfortable but should not be painful.

Urine tests: A urine sample involves weeing into a small pot which your doctor or nurse will give you. You can collect the urine sample at any time of day (unless you are advised otherwise) and you will also be told if the sample needs to be the first part of the urine sample or a ‘mid stream' sample. You will also need to wash your hands before and after taking the urine sample.

Blood tests: A blood test usually involves taking a sample of blood from your arm and then sending this off to a laboratory to be tested. You are usually sitting down during a blood test and a tight band called a tourniquet is put around your upper arm to make it easier for the health professional to take the sample of blood. They will ensure that the skin is clean and a needle attached to a syringe will be inserted into the vein. This isn't usually painful and you may feel a slight pricking sensation as the needle goes in. If you are worried or feel faint tell the health professional as they can help to make you feel more comfortable, including the option to lie down during the blood test. After the needle has been removed the health professional will apply pressure for a few minutes and a plaster/cotton wool pad will be left on. Some services can also test for some STIs via a finger prick blood test which can give results on the same day.

How is each STI tested?

When you visit the clinic you will discuss which tests you will require with the doctor or nurse. Here is an overview of which tests are commonly used to diagnose each type of STI:

  • Chlamydia: tests usually involve giving a urine sample or taking a swab
  • Gonorrhoea: tests usually involve taking a swab or giving a urine sample
  • Genital herpes: the doctor or nurse may be able to diagnose genital herpes by looking at the affected area – however taking a swab of fluid from a blister will confirm this
  • HIV: the most common way of testing for HIV involves taking a small sample of blood. HIV can be detected in the body four weeks after exposure to the virus
  • Syphilis: diagnosis usually involves an examination, followed by swabs (if there are sores) and a blood test. The blood test is usually repeated after three months
  • Pubic lice: diagnosis involves a health professional examining the area with a magnifying glass
  • Trichomoniasis: tested for by taking a swab or urine sample.
  • Genital warts: diagnosis involves a health professional examining the area 

How long will I wait for results?

Some sexual health services can do a test which produces the results during the appointment time (this is called 'point of care testing'). Or they make take a swab and then look at the sample under a microscope in order to diagnose it during your visit. Otherwise the swab may be sent away to a lab, in which case the results normally take a week to come back.

If you have your STI test done at Brook we will let you know how you will receive your results at your appointment.

What happens if my test shows I've got an STI?

Most STIs can be easily treated with antibiotics. If you test positive for any STI, your clinic will encourage you to talk to your current partner and sometimes to your previous partners so they can be tested as well. The clinic will help you find the best way to talk to other people if you need to, and can notify even contact them for you through ‘partner notification’ and not even mention your name.

STIs can be treated as below:

  • Chlamydia is treated with a course of antibiotics. The two most commonly prescribed treatments are: Azithromycin (single dose) or Doxycycline (a longer course, usually two capsules a day for a week)
  • Gonorrhoea: treatment usually involves having an antibiotic injection and a single dose of antibiotic tablets
  • Genital herpes: treated with antiviral medicines (although there is no cure)
  • HIV: HIV is preventable (through using condoms) and treatable (with drugs called antiretrovirals), but it is not curable
  • Syphilis: usually treated with a single antibiotic injection or a course of injections
  • Pubic lice: treatment can be done at home using special types of insecticide lotions, creams or shampoo
  • Trichomoniasis: treated with antibiotics, usually a five to seven day course of an antibiotic called Metronidazole
  • Genital warts: treatment will depend on how many you have but may involve creams or freezing (cryotherapy)

Most antibiotics are safe to use with hormonal contraception (like the pill, patch, injection or implant) but talk to the person prescribing the treatment to make sure.

Tell the nurse or doctor if you are pregnant or think you may be, or if you are breastfeeding. This will affect the type of antibiotic you are given.

Side effects of antibiotics are usually very mild but may include stomach ache, diarrhoea, feeling sick and thrush.

As with any medication it is really important to tell the clinic that is prescribing the treatment of any other medication that you may take or any other health problems that you may have. This will help the doctor or nurse to ensure that you are given the most effective treatment. You should also tell the doctor or nurse if you are pregnant or think you may be or if you are breastfeeding.

You should also avoid having sex until you have been given the all-clear, to prevent you being re-infected or passing the infection on.

I'm really nervous about going!

Don’t be! It's really common to feel nervous at the thought of getting tested however, to reassure you, most infections are easily treated. 

For many people, whether it’s your first time or not, visiting a sexual health clinic can cause a bit of anxiety. It may ease your worry if you know that:

  • They’ve seen it all. Clinic staff see all kinds of things. After all, it’s their job. Staff are there to make your visit as comfortable as possible.
  • It’s confidential. This means they won’t tell your parents, teachers or anyone else unless they think you are at risk of immediate harm. Read more about confidentiality.
  • You can be seen soon. Many clinics have walk-in hours where you can just show up and be seen. It’s a good idea to call to see if you need an appointment and if the clinic offers drop in appointments, expect to wait a while when you get there.
  • There are many places you can go. As well as Brook services, you can get tested at some GPs and other sexual health clinics

What will happen when I get there?

When you go to get an STI test you can either make an appointment, or some clinics offer a drop in service. For some drop in services you may need to wait a while.

At the clinic you will be asked your name and contact details - your GP will not be told about your visit unless you have given your permission, and your visit will be confidential unless they think you are at serious risk of immediate harm. Read more about confidentiality.

During your consultation the doctor or nurse will ask you some questions about your sexual history including when you last had sex and whether you have had unprotected sex. They will then talk you through the test.

You will be asked how you would like to receive your results, this can be via phone, text message or unmarked post. Depending on the type of test you have, some results are available straight away and you may be given treatment to take away with you on the day, but others will need to be sent away to a laboratory and you will usually be contacted in one-two weeks.

If you test positive for an STI you will be asked to come back to the clinic to talk about the results of your test and to discuss treatment. The clinic can also notify your previous sexual partners through ‘partner notification’ if you don’t feel comfortable doing this yourself.

Page last reviewed: May 2016
Next review due: May 2018