Hard to talk about, easy to diagnose: Know your STI status
 
Talk to your doctor about your risk factors and whether it makes sense to get tested for STIs.

Hard to talk about, easy to diagnose: Know your STI status

By Kyleigh Roessner RN-BSN

You might not want to talk about it. Not to your doctor, not to your partner.

But we need to talk about sexually transmitted infections, or STIs.

Why? Sexually transmitted infections are common, especially among young people. There are about 20 million new cases of STIs each year in the United States, and about half of these are in people between the ages of 15 and 24.

It's a list you might not be entirely familiar with: chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis B virus (HBV) human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes simplex virus (HSV).

Even more, you may need to be tested for them regularly.

Simple tests — whether through blood, urine or a swab swipe — can help your doctor screen for, diagnose and treat STIs, which often have mild or no symptoms but can be harmful if left unchecked and passed onto others.

How to protect yourself

It's important for people who are sexually active, particularly if you change partners or have more than one partner, to consider regular screenings to diagnose potential STIs. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), getting regular STI tests is one of the most important things that you can do to stay healthy, especially if you have certain risk factors.

If you and your partner decide to have sex, talk with a doctor about which STI tests to get beforehand. Ask about vaccines against HPV and hepatitis B Ask about vaccines against HPV and hepatitis B and if it is recommended you should receive these.

By properly using a condom every time you have sex, you can help protect yourself. The CDC has information about how to use a condom correctly. It's not safe to stop using condoms unless you've both been tested, know your status, and are in a mutually monogamous relationship.

All it takes is a visit to your doctor or another facility that provide STI screenings. The CDC offers a website where you can search for local clinics in your area. While screenings are not done automatically as part of physicals or wellness checks, ask for which tests to get.

If you're uncomfortable talking with your regular health care provider about STIs, there are many clinics that provide confidential and free or low-cost testing.

Why should I get tested?

Many STIs don't cause obvious symptoms. You or your partner may not experience symptoms, or you could have mild symptoms that are easily mistaken for something else.

For example, the CDC notes that chlamydia does not cause symptoms in most people who have it, explains the CDC. When it's symptomatic, chlamydia may cause discharge from the penis or vagina, burning during urination, pain during intercourse for women and burning around the urethra for men.

These symptoms should not be ignored. If left undiagnosed and untreated, chlamydia can eventually cause long-term damage like pelvic inflammatory disease in women and infertility for both men and women. However, if you get tested and diagnosed, chlamydia can be cured with a simple course of oral antibiotics for you and your partner.

HIV may also not cause any symptoms for several weeks after infection, and some people may not have symptoms for up to 10 years, notes HIV.gov. Some people experience flu-like symptoms anywhere from two to four weeks after contracting the virus. During the second phase of HIV, the virus is still active but reproduces at very low levels. People may not have any symptoms or feel sick during this time. Left untreated, however, the condition can progress to AIDS.

People who progress from HIV infection to AIDS have badly damaged immune systems and they begin developing an increasing number of severe illnesses, called opportunistic illnesses.

With treatment, however, especially when the HIV infection is diagnosed soon after it is contracted, research has shown the people living with HIV have a life expectancy that is nearly the same as people without the disease.

The only way to know for sure whether you have HIV is to get tested. Knowing your status is important because it helps you make healthy decisions to prevent getting or transmitting HIV.

It's your health. Take control.

Innovations in testing technology have made it faster and simpler to diagnose STIs than ever before.

Dr. Khaudeja Bano, an expert in diagnostics at Abbott, explains: "Diagnostic tests give you accurate, timely information to better manage your health. Early detection of STIs can completely change the course of your story. If you know your status, you can work with your doctor to take appropriate steps. Treatments are available for certain STIs that are not curable like HIV. Syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia are all curable, but only if you get tested, diagnosed and treated.

"For example, Abbott's HIV combo test can detect HIV infection earlier than antibody-only tests because it's designed to detect antigen, which is a protein of the HIV virus," says Dr. Bano. "By detecting HIV earlier, this means that people can begin treatment they need sooner if necessary. Abbott's RealTime HIV viral load test can be used by doctors to see if people with HIV receiving treatment are responding well to it or if it needs to be changed."

So, don't wait. Talk to your doctor about which STI tests you should get to determine if you have contracted any STIs so that you can receive treatment should you be infected. When it comes to your sexual health, it is important to be aware that STIs remain common and that testing can provide you powerful information to help keep you and others healthy.