April is STD Awareness Month: Get Yourself Tested!

April is STD Awareness Month: an annual observance to raise public awareness about the impact of Sexually Transmitted Diseases on the lives of Americans and the importance of discussing sexual health with your healthcare providers and sex partners. 

It’s a good reminder of the importance of being “out” and open with your healthcare provider, since knowing about your sexual practices helps them know which screenings are most appropriate for you.

That being said, there are plenty of people who find it uncomfortable or inconvenient to visit their primary care doctor for an STD screening every three or six months.  That’s why we offer free, walk-in screening at the Washington West Project at 1201 Locust Street.  It’s a safe and comfortable place where you can get accurate information and have an open conversation with one of our counselors without the fear of being judged about your sexual history or behavior.

Why does this matter?  Because every year there are more than 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the U.S. By age 25, an estimated one in two sexually active young people will get one.  Contrary to some commonly held myths, you can get STDs through oral sex, and you may have an STD even if you don’t experience any obvious symptoms.  The only way to know if you or your partner has an STD is to get screened.

If you haven’t been in to see us at Wash West before, we thought we’d take the opportunity to answer some basic questions about the services we offer, and what to expect when you make a visit.  

Who should get tested?

Anyone who is sexually active!  We recommend every three months if you are having sex with more than one partner; otherwise every six months is a good rule of thumb.  STDs are very common, and it only takes one sexual experience to get one.  While there are some warning signs to watch out for - such as itching, rash, sores, discharge, a burning sensation when urinating, and/or fever-like symptoms - it’s important to note that many STDs will have absolutely NO symptoms, so you can’t always tells by how you’re feeling, or the way someone else ‘looks.’  It’s worth repeating that the only way to know if you or anyone else has an STD is to get tested.

Don’t wait for someone else to recommend you get tested – if it’s been a while, make sure you come in!  Many health providers fail to ask questions about a patient’s sexual activity or behavior, so they don’t realize who may be at risk.  

What should I get tested for?

This depends on many factors - the kind of activities you are engaged in, whether you’ve used protection consistently, etc.  Your counselor will ask a series of questions to help determine your specific risk factors and which STD screenings are appropriate in each case. It’s very important to be honest and not hold back information from your counselor or health care provider when having these conversations– if they don’t have all the information, it’s very hard for them to recommend the right kind of test. 

We see people every day from all walks of life, all ages, all orientations and identities, so there’s really nothing we haven’t heard!  Our services are completely confidential, and our counselors work hard to put people at ease and help them understand that there are no ‘right’ answers - the goal is about finding a realistic and appropriate plan to keep each individual safe and healthy.

At Wash West we offer screenings for Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis, which are among the most common STDs.  Chlamydia is the most commonly reported STD in the U.S., and syphilis is prevalent among men who have sex with men (MSM), especially here in Philadelphia.

Washington West Project

What is the screening like?

Depending on which infection you’re being tested for, it could be a urine sample, a blood sample, or a swab of your throat, or a self-swab of your anus.  It’s all quick and painless (and private), and well worth the few minutes of your time.

Unlike rapid HIV tests, which can provide a result is a matter of a few minutes, STD screenings must be sent to a lab (at Wash West, we work with Mazzoni Center Family and Community Medicine, which is located a few blocks away at 809 Locust), so it usually takes about one to two weeks to get your results.  We’ll give you a phone number so you can follow up about your results.  

Yikes!  I tested positive!  What do I do?

First and foremost, don’t panic.  Many STDs are curable, and all are treatable.  Some require a course of antibiotics, which if taken according to the instructions will clear things up in a matter of a couple of weeks.  If you test positive for herpes, which is a viral infection (and therefore does not respond to antibiotics) there are medications you can take to treat the symptoms, and other medications to help prevent future outbreaks and minimize their severity, as well as to lower the chances of passing the virus on to partners.  Whatever the results, our counselors will connect you to the appropriate information and follow-up care. 

It’s never welcome news to learn you have an STD, but it’s important to take action quickly.  If you leave an STD untreated it’s easier to spread to others, and you could face more serious health consequences down the road.  You should know you are definitely not alone, since STDs are far more common than most people realize.  Find someone you trust (a friend, relative, or a doctor) to talk about it.  

What comes next?

Make sure you follow through on your treatment - and be sure to TALK to your partners about your result!  It may not be an easy conversation to start, but it’s important to show them the consideration they deserve – after all, you’d want to know if the situation were reversed, right?  And you want to prevent any further spread of infection.  If you’re nervous, you can practice what you’re going to say, write it down for yourself (even write a letter to them, if that’s easier).  And if you simply can’t face telling someone directly, there’s a free online service called InSpot (www.inspot.org) that lets you send an anonymous e-card to notify someone they need to be tested for an STD.

OK, I’m ready to do this.  What are your hours?

At Wash West we offer STD screenings on Tuesdays (1PM-6PM); Thursdays (6PM-9PM); Fridays (2PM-5PM) and Saturdays (1PM-4PM).  HIV testing is offered Mondays through Saturdays.  (For the full schedule, click here). And if those hours aren’t convenient, ask your medical provider about STD screening, or you can locate a free testing site nearby by searching:  http://hivtest.cdc.gov