STDs: Why Get Tested?

April 1, 2014

STDs: Why get tested?

Workers at STD clinics across the nation attest that very few of their infected patients—fewer than two in 10 men and one in 10 women—ever figured they were at risk for acquiring a sexually transmitted disease. Yet this year alone, 19 million Americans will be infected. Half of all sexually active people will contract an STD by the time they're in their mid-20s.

Whether or not such threatening statistics are looming over your love life, a sympathetic glance towards anyone who's contracted an STD reveals the necessity to be tested, and the folly of making assumptions about one's own invulnerability—or a partner's presumed status.

Even the most promiscuous, careless people out there seem to believe their personal regimen for staying safe is airtight. Finding out they were wrong is not only a rude awakening but a life-altering event.

So, why get tested for a sexually transmitted disease? If you can’t tell already, that's as easy to answer as 1-2-3.

1. Because you never know until you test.

Consciously or unconsciously, we count on our bodies to send up a signal when we're ailing. The head aches at the onset of a flu, and fingers go numb before carpal tunnel sets in. But the majority of STDs—including highly prevalent conditions like genital herpes, HPV, gonorrhea, and even HIV—can be completely asymptomatic. No itch. No sore. No pain when you pee.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 90 percent of all people with genital herpes don’t know they have it. One in four people with HIV, among the most deadly of diseases when untreated, don't know either. In 2005, there were some 976,000 diagnoses of chlamydia, yet it's estimated there are 2.8 million new cases each year.

"Most cases of chlamydia go undiagnosed," says Jennifer Ruth, health communications specialist at the CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention. "Chlamydia remains a major threat to reproductive health, but the vast majority of infections have no symptoms."

"Even people who believe they have done all the right things can be very susceptible,"
confirms Fred Wyand of the American Social Health Association."People may say, 'We look and we feel fine. We don’t have any rashes or drips or pain or anything like that. Why is this stuff relevant to us?' But STDs can and do happen to anyone—even people who have very few partners."

Bear in mind that you may be under a mistaken impression about your vulnerability. You may assume your risk is too low to sweat the test, but nearly all sexual activity is associated with some susceptibility—even the most innocent and seemingly innocuous kiss.

2. Because things can get worse.

If we could clear STDs by taking a hot shower or gargling with salt water, getting tested wouldn't be an issue. But these infections require medical attention: Without it most conditions will worsen, sometimes with lethal implications. By evading diagnosis and treatment, we subject not only ourselves but our partner(s) to substantial risks.

The complications associated with some diseases are well documented—genital  herpes can result in a lifetime of recurring sores; late-stage syphilis can lead to dementia; HIV destroys the immune system. Across the gamut from annoying conditions (crabs) to those that are potentially life-threatening (AIDS, gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis B), researchers are still learning how the unchecked progress of sexually transmitted diseases can affect us.

Though sexually active people are often willing to take measures to prevent pregnancy, many do intend to have kids somewhere down the line. An STD can make pregnancy difficult if not impossible. For women specifically, pelvic inflammatory disease is a complication of diseases including chlamydia, trichomoniasis and gonorrhea which can lead to infertility or ectopic pregnancy. PIDs can be cured—but first you have to know you have it. The entire reproductive cycle stands to be impacted by STDs, from infertility to the passing of infection to a newborn during childbirth.

Faced with an infection of any kind, the immune system inevitably has a more difficult time defending the body against other threats. Weakened immune response helps explain, in part, the phenomenon of STD "co-infection," where infection with one STD drives the chance of acquiring another. The alarming and frightening synergy among STDs, such as herpes and HIV, is just beginning to be understood.

Meantime, the links between STDs and cancer are reason enough to be sure you're tested and treated. In addition to the much publicized link between HPV and cervical cancer, malignancy has been linked to HIV, HPV in men, and other STDs to varying degrees.

3. Because … why wouldn’t you?

We're not aiming to scare the pants off of you (or on you, as the case may be), but by now your misgivings about being treated may seem somewhat trivial.

Health care workers are constantly easing the process of STD screenings to ease anxiety and embarrassment. Learn where you can be tested by talking to a doctor, contacting a local health department, or by calling (800) CDC-INFO for a clinic referral. Online services are beginning to crop up as well, allowing a user to get set up for a blood test and view test results online with complete anonymity.

If you're concerned about stigma, the impact on a relationship, or even the pin-prick of a blood test, consider the profound relief that comes with a clean screening. If, per chance, you do test positive for an infection, your chances of being cured or treated will increase in direct relation to how soon you address the problem.