Quick quiz: when should you get tested for sexually transmitted infections?
Hold-on, you’re not in your twenties? You’re not promiscuous? Did you know that rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis have surged in the past decade in middle-aged Canadians? The Center for Disease Control in the US reports increases in syphilis and chlamydia of over 180% in adults aged 45 to 65 years old1. Why the increase? Experts speculate that the availability and use of phosphodiesterase inhibitors, such as Viagra™ and Cialis™, is linked.
The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends you get checked for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the following circumstances:
- before you have sex with a new partner
- if you or your partner have been sexually active and have not been tested or do not know your results
- if you know your current or past partner has or had an STI
- if the condom breaks or you have sex without one
- if you or your partner have shared needles for drugs, tattooing or piercing
- if you or your partner have any STI symptoms
How are STIs contracted?All STIs can be contracted through vaginal sex and most can be contracted through anal sex. However, some STIs can also be transmitted through oral sex, kissing, skin-to-skin touching and exposure to infected needles.
But I don’t have any symptoms...One of the difficulties with diagnosing STIs is that many people don’t know they’re infected. They may have no symptoms or very subtle symptoms. However, untreated STIs can cause life-threatening complications, including cancers, pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, liver disease, ectopic pregnancies, stillbirth, spontaneous abortions, low birth weight, neurological problems and death. These complications sometimes take years to manifest.
What to expect during an STI checkYou’ve made your appointment to get checked. What should you anticipate when you see your healthcare provider? First, expect them to ask you a lot of questions about your sex life. This isn’t meant to be intrusive, but to help your provider understand your risk factors and what sorts of information you might need for future prevention. Your personal health information will be kept confidential.
Your healthcare provider may also do any of the following:
- ask for a urine sample
- check the external parts of your genitals
- use a cotton swab to take samples from your throat, anus, vagina and cervix (women) and urethra (men)
- take a blood sample
- check the cervix and the inside of the vagina using a tool called a speculum
- do a Pap test to check for changes in the cells of the cervix
- do a bimanual exam (the healthcare provider places one or two fingers inside the vagina and their other hand on the lower abdomen in order to feel the ovaries and uterus)
Don’t presumeYour family doctor may not test you for STIs during routine medical check-ups. Also, STIs won’t show-up in urine or blood tests for other conditions. Ask your doctor specifically for STI testing.
Also, don’t presume your partner is free of infection. They may not even know that they have an STI. Talk to your partner about STI testing, and if you choose to have sex, use a condom to decrease your risk.
Common STI Symptoms
|no symptoms||no symptoms|
|a change or increase in discharge from the vagina||burning during urination|
|vaginal itching||discharge from the penis|
|pain or bleeding during or after vaginal sex||pain in the testicles|
|pain in the abdomen||sores or lumps|
|burning during urination||swollen glands|
|sores or lumps||chancre sores or warts on the genitals, anus or mouth|
|swollen glands||body rash|
|chancre sores or warts on the genitals, anus or mouth||flu-like symptoms|
|flu-like symptoms||pain in the abdomen|
|tiredness||dark urine or pale stools|
|dark urine or pale stools||lack of appetite|
|lack of appetite||nausea|
|nausea||yellowing of the skin and/or the whites of the eyes|
|yellowing of the skin and/or the whites of the eyes|
STI / HIV Information Line
Free and confidential 24 hour information line
Call HealthLink at 811 (in Alberta)
Sexually Transmitted Infection Clinic
Free, private testing and treatment for STIs
Call HealthLink at 811 (in Alberta) or 403-955-6700 (Calgary)
Public Health Agency of Canada, Sexual Health and Sexually Transmitted Infections
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Workowski KA, Bolan GA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines, 2015. MMWR Recomm Rep 2015; 64(RR-03):1-137