At the health care provider’s office, you will be called into the exam room to have a brief conversation with the clinician. In this conversation they might ask about your sexual history (which can include questions about the number and gender(s) of your sexual partner(s)), if you are currently monogamous or not, if you’ve had any STIs in the past, the types of sex you are having, whether you are using condoms and/or contraception, etc. These questions should be asked matter-of-factly and shouldn’t feel invasive but experiences will differ depending on where you are getting tested and depending on your own comfort level around talking about sex and sexuality. You can absolutely decline answering any question that feels invasive or uncomfortable; however, the responses you give will help inform the clinician on what types of tests they should do for STI screening. Because urine, blood, and swab tests are used to screen for different STIs, providing as much relevant information that you are comfortable sharing about the sex you are having can be helpful in narrowing down which test(s) is/are the best fit for you.
Types of STI tests
Different STIs require different types of tests. Depending on what you are being tested for you, you may receive a swab, a urine test, or a blood test. In some circumstances, a physical examination or other type of test may be used.
Swabs are used to test for chlamydia and gonorrhea, although you can also test for chlamydia and gonorrhea with a urine test. Swabs can also be used for herpes (if you have a current outbreak of herpes sores) and are also used to diagnose trichomoniasis. During a swab, your health care provider will use a long Q-tip-like swab to take a small sample of fluid from either your vagina, throat, or anus, depending on which area of your body is likely to have an STI. This is a quick process where the swab is run over the area – either your vagina, throat or anus – to collect the sample and then it is sent to a lab for testing. You will not receive your results immediately. Swabs are typically conducted as part of a pap test.
Urine Tests are used to test for chlamydia and gonorrhea. Your health care provider or clinician will provide you with a small plastic container, which you will take into the bathroom and pee into. The container is then sent to a lab for testing. You will not receive your results immediately. In some places, you will be given a testing kit with a container for you to follow the testing instructions at home and send back the sample.
Blood Tests are used to test for HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis B and C. They can also be used for herpes, although sometimes a swab is used to diagnose herpes (if you are currently experiencing an outbreak in the form of sores). During a blood test, a health care provider or clinician will use a small needle and take a small vial of blood from your arm. This sample is then sent to a lab for testing. You will not receive your results immediately. The only exception to this is with Rapid Point-of-Care HIV testing, where a health care provider will prick your finger, take a small sample of blood, and give you your test results on the spot, usually in about 15 minutes. Not all clinics offer this type of testing, so it is best to call ahead and check.
Other Tests: Sometimes, a health care provider can diagnose certain STBBIs by doing a visual inspection. This means they can diagnose things like genital warts by looking at them, if you have active lesions or sores. A visual examination is also used to diagnose public lice (crabs).
STI Testing FAQs
Can I get tested when I am on my period?
Yes! STI tests, along with physical examinations, can be conducted while menstruating. Some tests can be affected like a pap test (and your health care provider would let you know in advance) but standard STI/HIV tests are no problem. Your health care provider can check for STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia with a pee test or a swab from the vagina. Doing a urine sample test or a swab test for these STIs while you are on your period is no problem. If you feel more comfortable waiting a day or two, that's okay too!
Is a pap test the same thing as an STI test?
Pap tests are a preventative measure against cervical, vaginal, and anal cancers. Technically, they are not really an STI test as the health care provider is not looking for signs of a specific sexually transmitted infection, they are looking for abnormal cells on your cervix, in your vagina, and/or anal area (if you are getting an anal pap). It’s a kind of check-in to make sure that all tissue is healthy and that there are no concerning conditions developing that should be treated.
The pap test itself is a short procedure where a small sample of cells from the cervix is scraped so that they can be examined under the microscope. A pap test screens for and helps to diagnose:
- precancerous conditions of the cervix and cervical cancer
- precancerous conditions of the vagina and vaginal cancer
- infection and inflammation in the endocervix and vagina
Pap tests are also done as a follow-up to previous abnormal pap tests, to monitor precancerous conditions, and to check for cancer recurrence after treatment. People who have a cervix and who are or have been sexually active (regardless of their gender identity or the sex of their sexual partner(s)) should get regular pap tests.
During a pap test, your health care provider may ask if you wish to be tested for STIs at the same time. In this case, they will use an additional swab to test for chlamydia and gonorrhea. It is up to you but many people find this a convenient time to get tested. If your health care provider doesn’t ask and you are interested in having an STI test while getting your Pap test done, let them know.
When do I receive my results?
The timing of when you receive your results will depend on the clinic you go to, as well as the type of testing you are receiving. For instance, urine and swab tests can take around a week, whereas blood tests can take two weeks or more. It’s also important to know that many clinics will not contact you if you have a negative test. If you don’t hear back from the clinic, it’s most likely that your test results have come back negative. If you’re concerned, you can call the clinic and ask them to provide your results over the phone.
The only exception to the waiting game is Rapid Point-of-Care HIV testing, where you can get the result within a few minutes. Not everywhere offers this type of test, so be sure to ask the clinic you are getting testing at if you would like to receive Rapid Point-of-Care HIV testing.
Are my results confidential?
Yes, your results are confidential but there are some limitations to this confidentiality, including reportable STBBIs and partner notification (sometimes called “contact tracing”).
When you are diagnosed with a reportable STBBI (gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis A, B and C), the clinic where you received your positive STI test will notify the Public Health Unit in your area to report that a new case was diagnosed. This reporting is done anonymously, without names attached. Public Health isn’t interested in knowing your name or information, just in observing and understanding trends in public health data around sexually transmitted infections and blood borne infections.
If you are diagnosed with a reportable STI, Public Health is required to try to notify any partner(s) who may have been exposed so they can also get tested and treated. You will typically be contacted by Public Health and asked for the names and contact information of current and past partners. When they contact your previous partners, they will not use your name. They will simply let them know that they may have come into contact with a particular STI. You may also request to have this conversation yourself with previous partners instead of having your health care provider contact them. If you are nervous about this process, or concerned about the possible implications, your health care provider can provide detailed information about exactly what to expect in the partner notification process and even help with suggestions on how to start having this conversation.
Does it cost anything?
Don’t forget to bring your health card to your appointment. If you have a provincial/territorial health card, STI testing is free. If you don’t have provincial or territorial health coverage, a few clinics will provide testing services without a card; however, you’ll want to check ahead of time to see if the clinic is able to provide you services without your card. This can be particularly tricky if you are a young person and your parent or guardian keeps your health card with them. Some youth-friendly clinics are aware of this issue and may be able to offer testing services without a health card.
Can I get tested for everything?
If you ask to be tested for “everything,” clinicians will often take this to mean just a urine test, which screen for the most common bacterial STIs, specifically, chlamydia and gonorrhea.
If you do wish to be tested for STIs other than chlamydia and gonorrhea, it can be helpful to be prepared with information about which test(s) you would like to receive and particularly, which STIs you may be concerned about. Getting tested for everything can help ease our minds and makes sense in many situations; however, it can also be helpful to think through the likelihood of having a particular STI and whether full-spectrum testing versus just a urine or blood test for example makes sense in your particular case.
I got tested during my last Pap test. Does that mean I got tested for everything?
If you opted to get tested during your last pap test, unless you specifically requested additional bloodwork, chances are you were swabbed for chlamydia and gonorrhea only, in addition to HPV, which the pap test is mainly intended to look for. This means you were not tested for any of the STBBIs that require bloodwork – for instance, herpes, hepatitis, HIV and syphilis. If you’d like to get tested for these STBBIs as well, let your health care provider know.
Is it normal to feeling anxious?
Feeling anxious before a test is totally normal and common, especially if it’s your first time. To help, some people like to prepare a few notes on what to ask for beforehand. You can also call the clinic ahead of time and ask what you can expect, or even ask for a clinic tour.
It is also completely normal for anxiety to persist even after you’ve been tested and have received a negative test result. If you’re unable to shake the anxiety around the possibility of having a particular STI, even after receiving a negative test, get in touch with your local sexual health clinic to speak with a counsellor who can assist you in moving through these stressful emotions.
How often should I get tested?
How often you get tested will depend on many factors. A good general rule is to get tested every time you switch partners and before engaging in sex with your new boo. If you are with the same partner for a long time and don’t have any concerns around sharing needles or tattooing equipment, getting tested every year is another great rule of thumb. It’s important that you don’t wait until you see or experience symptoms of an STI because so many are asymptomatic and can still be passed on even without showing any signs of infection.
Another great option is to make testing a routine part of your health care. If you’re used to going to the dentist or to see your family doctor once a year, make STI testing just another regular part of taking care of yourself.
Going with a group or friends or with your partner is a great way to normalize STI testing, create a routine, and even incorporate it into part of your relationships. There is nothing to be ashamed of in getting tested. In fact, quite the opposite, it shows that you take good care of yourself and those around you.
How soon after sex can I get tested?
This will depend on the STI and the time in between the sexual contact. The amount of time that needs to pass after sexual contact and before you can get tested for STIs (and have them “show up” on a test) is often referred to as a window period. The duration of this window period depends on the STI.
- HIV can take up to three months for a final positive result, although 95% of tests will be accurate after six weeks. It can take up to three months for enough copies of the virus (known as viral load) to accumulate in your blood and be detected through a blood test.
- Chlamydia can be tested for after a few days but results will be most accurate after 2 weeks.
- Gonorrhea results are most accurate after seven days. While you can get tested earlier, there is a chance of a false negative if not enough bacteria or virus has accumulated from the infection to be detected on a test.
- Hepatitis has a window period of two and four weeks.
- Syphilis has window period between three and four weeks.
- Herpes results are most accurate after three months or within two to 12 days if a lesion is present.
For more information on window periods, see SmartSexResource’s chart.