If you’re monogamously partnered, over age 40, or post-menopausal, you might think STD testing is a thing of your past. You’d be wrong.
STDs (sexually transmitted diseases)—also referred to as STIs (sexually transmitted infections)—have actually been on the rise in older women for years,, according to data collected by the CDC, with one in five Americans testing positive for an STD. Which means it’s more important than ever to get tested, no matter your age or relationship status.
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“Some women feel that once they enter menopause or even as soon as they feel they are done having kids, STDs aren’t as dangerous to them—but this is incorrect thinking,” says Dr. Kerry-Anne Perkins, an OB/GYN and member of the medical review board of Women’s Health Interactive. “Many STDs can impact fertility if left untreated, but this is not the only cause for concern. STDs can cause life-threatening problems even in the 40s and beyond.”
Women are also less likely than men to discover symptoms of an active infection, according to the CDC, since symptoms can mimic a yeast infection or UTI, and ulcers (like those caused by herpes or syphilis) may only appear inside the vagina. Additionally, std symptoms in women differ significantly from in men.
To help you stay safe, we put together a guide on how to get tested, what to get tested for, and why it’s worth getting over the stigma of testing, once and for all.
How do I get tested?
STD testing isn’t typically a part of an annual physical exam unless you’ve indicated that you might be at higher risk due to multiple partners or other lifestyle factors. That said, it’s easy to ask for testing during your appointment. Your primary care practitioner or gynecologist is a good first person to call for testing even if you’re not due for an annual exam. Not only can they administer the test, which usually involves a blood and urine sample, but they can also provide follow-up treatment if needed.
If you’re not established in a medical practice, the wait to see your doc is too long, or you simply don’t want to go that route, google “STD testing near me” and you should be able to find a number of resources, some of which may even be free. That said, it’s understandable if walking into Planned Parenthood as a 40- or 50-something working professional feels out of the question. If you’d rather not go that route, you might consider an at-home testing kit like Let’s Get Checked, where you can choose from hundreds of STDs to test for. This makes testing whenever you like, and at regular intervals, easy and discreet. Keep in mind that STDs don’t show up immediately after unprotected sex, which means you’ll want to wait a few days, weeks, or even months for results based on what you’re testing for. For example, it can take three months for HIV to show up on a test, but it only takes a few days to a few weeks for STDs like gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis to show up.
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Though there’s not a single test for all STDs, your doctor might order a urine test or blood test, and pair your pap smear with an HPV test. HIV tests can be done with just a cheek swab, and rapid tests can deliver results back in just 20 minutes.
What are the most common STDs and what are the STD symptoms in women?
Nearly every STD has seen a jump in older populations over the past decade, but here are the most common ones to watch out for:
- Chlamydia & Gonorrhea. These two bacterial infections are most concerning to women who still want to conceive, says Perkins. They can both lead to problems like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and increase the chance of contracting other infections, such as HIV. Though both can be treated with antibiotics, though drug-resistant strains (particularly of gonorrhea) have become more prevalent, so new antibiotics may be needed.
- HPV (human papillomavirus). HPV is the most common STD in the US, with more than 40 million infections every year. The disease can go away on its own and not cause any STD symptoms in women, but it can also cause genital warts and a number of different cancers, including cervical, vulvar, vaginal, anal, throat/mouth, and penile. The longer HPV stays in the body and the older you are, the higher your risk of developing symptoms, says Perkins. Luckily, an HPV test can be done at the same time as your pap smear, and should be done every three to five years “or more often if your doctor feels it necessary,” adds Perkins.
- HSV-2. Also known as Herpes, HSV-2 occurs in women at nearly twice the rate of men, as researchers theorize that it may be more easily transmitted from men to women than the reverse. Most people are asymptomatic, but outbreaks can cause painful genital sores, fever, and body aches. Though there’s not a cure, antiviral medications can be used to reduce outbreaks and transmission.
- Trichomoniasis. While not the most dangerous STD, “the trich ” is an inconvenient one, says Perkins. Trichomoniasis STD symptoms in women can include itching and genital irritation, but many people do not have symptoms at all. “It is more dangerous for women who still want to have children, as it can have a negative impact on fertility,” she says.
- HIV. This disease remains dangerous and potentially lethal at any age, as it attacks your body’s immune system. Left untreated, it can lead to AIDS or death. But early detection is key to controlling the disease. “While there is no cure for HIV, medication can stop its progression and even make the viral load undetectable, meaning you won’t be contagious,” says Perkins.
- Syphilis. Once an extremely rare disease, this STD has been on the rise in the US. It usually causes a rash on the palms and feet, as well as a “chancre,” a painless sore near the genitals and mouth. Without treatment, it can cause blindness, mental issues, paralysis, and even death–so testing is vital for early treatment.
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What are the STD symptoms in women I should watch out for?
Regular testing is important even if you don’t have any symptoms, as many of these diseases can be asymptomatic and you can still pass on a disease to your partner even if you’re not experiencing symptoms. That said, if you have been recently sexually active and notice issues like genital sores or itchiness, painful urination, and/or strange vaginal discharge or odors, it’s a good idea to see a doctor right away and get tested.
How often should I get tested?
Depending on your risk profile, you and your doctor can come up with a schedule that makes sense for you. Ideally, both you and a new partner would be tested before having unprotected sex. Even if that’s not possible, you should get tested at least once after sex with a new partner. And if you’ve tested positive for an STD, you should plan on getting tested again in six months, as having one STD puts you at higher risk of getting another.
What should I do if I test positive?
For starters, try not to panic! By getting an accurate diagnosis you can begin to treat the underlying condition. Most STDs can be treated, if not cured, with medication. Also remember it’s crucial to tell your partner or recent partners, so they can get tested too. While it might feel embarrassing, it’s important to provide the information so they can get screened and treated if necessary. Also, both partners should beware of making assumptions about other possible partners. STDs can sometimes take years to show up on a test, so a positive result doesn’t necessarily mean infidelity was involved.
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Ideally, we’re moving in a direction where STDs aren’t so stigmatized. When that’s the case, STD testing will be seen as it should be: Just another simple health check we do on a regular basis. Until then, know that you have options when it comes to getting this important testing done in the way that feels best for you.