Everything Canadians need to know about STI testing and sexual health
Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis. Herpes, hepatitis, HIV. The list goes on when it comes to sexually transmitted infections (STI), and if you’re having unprotected sex, you ought to get tested.
STIs have been rising in Canada since the late 1990s. Between 1998 and 2015 (the most recent national data available), chlamydia — the most commonly reported STI in Canada — has risen from 39,372 to 116,499 annual cases among all ages and genders, and gonorrhea rates increased from 5,076 to 19,845 in the same time period. Infectious syphilis rates rose dramatically from 501 to 4,551 cases.
While you may not have any symptoms at all — half of men and 70 per cent of women don’t show signs of chlamydia — a simple blood or urine test, or a mouth or genital swab could quickly let you know if you’ve been infected.
Yet sexually active Canadians aren’t getting tested, experts are warning.
“The concern is we’re not picking up testing for STIs, so there’s a risk of having untreated STIs being passed onto somebody else. We’re actually finding that a lot of people are not being tested — there seems to be this lax attitude towards protection and testing among certain populations,” Dr. Rob Dmytryshyn, medical director at Women’s College Hospital’s Bay Centre for Birth Control in Toronto, told Global News.
READ MORE: What you should know about untreatable STIs
“There’s this avoidance [to get tested] because it’s attached to stigma and shame. It’s an impediment we need to confront if we want to promote the health of Canadians across all domains, including sexual health,” Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said.
The experts shed light on everything Canadians need to know about STI testing.
When should you start getting tested for STIs?
Start getting tested once you’re sexually active. If you’ve ever had unprotected sex or something went wrong, such as a rip in the condom, you should get tested, the experts say.
Anyone can get an STI — these infections don’t discriminate by age, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
How often should you get tested?
This answer varies depending on the person. If you have multiple partners, you’re more likely to get tested than, say, someone else who is in a monogamous relationship.
“It depends on your sexual habits, so there’s no right answer to this. Commonly, people will test at the start of a new relationship to know they’re not bringing anything into the relationship. Others could get tested after they had a partner whose history they don’t know about,” Dmytryshyn said.
What happens during a test?
It depends on what you’re testing for. Chlamydia and gonorrhea can be screened through a vaginal exam, in which a swab is taken from the cervix (or the penis, throat or rectum in men), while blood tests are used to diagnose hepatitis, HIV, and syphilis.
Urine tests can also screen for some STIs, including chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Keep in mind, STIs have incubation periods so you shouldn’t get tested immediately after having unprotected sex. For example, the earliest window for testing for chlamydia or gonorrhea is about two to six days, while you should wait three to six weeks for syphilis.
Where can I get tested?
Testing is free across Canada at family doctors’ offices, walk-in clinics, sexual health clinics, and other public health units and community centres. In some provinces, you can even seek anonymous HIV testing sites, Elliott said.
What are the symptoms?
Sometimes there are no symptoms, but if and when they do crop up, they can include:
- Unusual discharge with an odour coming from the vagina or penis
- A rash, sores, or itching on or around the genitals
- Burning or discomfort during urination
- Pain in the lower abdomen
- Bleeding from the vagina other than during a monthly period
What are your treatment options for STIs?
Prevention is much better than treatment, Dmytryshyn notes, but those diagnosed with an STI can get help.
A herpes infection can be suppressed through ongoing treatment, while the big three — chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis — can be treated with antibiotics.
(Super gonorrhea, an antibiotic-resistant strain, is making health officials worried, though. Right now, doctors rely on an injection as well as a course of antibiotics.)
Read more from our series Below the Belt: Canada’s STI Problem.
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