Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

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  • What are sexually transmitted infections?

    Sexually transmitted infections, or STIs for short, are infections or diseases that can be passed from person to person through vaginal, anal, and oral sex. They’re really common, and lots of people who have them don’t have any symptoms. 

    Some STIs are viral and don’t have a cure yet, like HIV and herpes. That sounds a little scary, but there are treatments now to help people with HIV or herpes to stay healthy, lead normal lives, and not pass it on. Other STIs are bacterial like chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, and they can be treated with medication. Without treatment, STIs can lead to serious health problems, so it’s important for you and your partner to get tested and treated before a small preventable problem turns into a bigger illness.

  • How do I protect myself against STIs?

    You can protect yourself against STIs by taking preventative steps like: 

    • Using protection. Using condoms or dental dams creates a barrier that prevents passing STIs. Even if you’re not concerned about getting pregnant, these barrier methods are a great thing to have on hand to protect yourself and your partner. 
    • Get vaccinated for HPV (if you aren’t already).In the US this is pretty common for everyone when they are 11 or 12 years old.  
    • Get tested for STIs and talk with your partner about getting tested. It is normal to have a conversation with your partner about their sexual history, their use of condoms during their previous sexual encounters, and if they have been tested for STIs recently. It’s your right to ask these questions in order to protect yourself. Don’t feel weird about this!
    • Taking PreP or PEP, which prevents HIV.

  • What is HPV?

    HPV is a kind of STI (lol so many acronyms, we know) that stands for human papillomavirus. It’s the most common sexually transmitted infection, and most people will get it at some point in their lives. HPV is usually harmless and goes away by itself, but some types can lead to cervical cancer or genital warts, so it’s important to get tested with a pap smear or vaccinated to prevent it in the first place. The HPV vaccine is one of the most effective vaccines you can get and it’s one of few vaccines that protect against cancer. In fact, you may have already gotten it! The Center for Disease Control recommends that 11- to 12-year-olds receive two doses of HPV vaccine 6 to 12 months apart. If you didn’t get it when you were younger, people ages 15-26, need three doses of HPV vaccine. It should be covered by your health insurance.

  • What is STI testing and why is it important?

    A lot of the time, STIs don’t have symptoms, so getting tested is the only way to know for sure if you have an STI. If you’ve had any kind of sexual contact that can spread STIs, like vaginal, anal, or oral sex–you should go to a health clinic and ask for an STI test. There are different tests for different STIs, so “getting tested” might mean peeing in a cup, getting blood drawn, or a simple swab. Getting tested for STIs can be quick, painless, and most of the time it’s totally free. You can find free STI testing centers here.

  • When should I get tested and how often?

    You can’t always tell if you have an STI just by the way you look or feel. Most of the time, people with STIs don’t have any symptoms. However, some common symptoms of STIs are unusual discharge or rashes or bumps around your genitals. So the only way to know for sure if you (or your partner) has an STI is to get tested. It is a good idea to get tested before you start having sex with a new person for the first time, and you can ask them to do the same! Life happens sometimes and maybe you didn’t get tested before having sex with a new person. Be sure to get tested- it shows that you care about your health, and we love that for you. 

    When will a test be able to detect infection? Common STI window periods:

    • Chlamydia: 1-7 days after last unprotected sexual contact (the sooner the better).
    • Gonorrhea: 1-14 days after last unprotected sexual contact (the sooner the better).
    • Syphilis: 10-90 days after last unprotected sexual contact. If you test negative before 90 days are up, you should test again after 90 days.
    • HIV: 2-3 months after last unprotected sexual contact. Testing earlier is actually not better for HIV. Only 5% of people who are HIV-positive received a positive result 7 days after exposure.

  • What are the different types of STI testing?

    There is no single test for STIs - each STI has its own test which can be overwhelming to navigate for the first time. Since many STIs share similar symptoms, your doctor will most likely test you for several at a time. There are a few ways that you might be tested for STIs: Your doctor can sometimes tell right away that you have an STI from a physical exam, some STIs, like HIV, can be tested for with at-home rapid kits, and other tests can take anywhere from 20 minutes to several days or weeks to come back from a lab. For some STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia, your doctor will recommend that you get re-tested in a few weeks, regardless of your initial test results.

  • What can I expect during STI testing?

    Getting tested for STIs for the first time can feel overwhelming and scary. Knowing what to expect can help ease your worries and boost your confidence to get tested. At your appointment, a doctor or nurse will work with you to figure out which STI tests make the most sense for you. You might discuss:

    • Symptoms you’re experiencing
    • Whether you or your partner(s) have had an STI in the past
    • The number of people you have had sexual contact with 
    • The kind of sexual contact you’ve had
    • How often you use protection (e.g. condoms, dental dams)
    • Whether you engage in any other activities that put you at higher risk for an STI (e.g. sharing needles)

    Discussing these things with a stranger might feel scary or just plain awkward. But remember, doctors have seen and heard it all, they are not there to judge you, and everything you tell them is confidential. Most people will have an STI at least once in their lifetime and there is nothing to be ashamed of. 

    Here is what you can expect from each type of test that you might take:

    • Urine sample - you will pee in a cup in the privacy of a restroom
    • Oral sample - you or your doctor will rub the inside of your cheek or back of the throat with a soft cotton swab
    • A physical exam - a nurse or doctor will look at your genital or anal area to check for sores, warts, discharge, or rashes
    • A blood test - a nurse or doctor will take blood from your arm or finger
    • A genital swab - a nurse or doctor will gently collect discharge or cell samples from your penis, vagina, or anus
    • A blister/sore swab - a nurse or doctor will gently collect fluid with a cotton swab from any blisters or sores

  • How should I bring up STI testing with my regular doctor?

    While there are many clinics that specialize in STI testing, typically, STI testing is not a part of regular check-ups or visits to the gynecologist. You may have to be the one to initiate a conversation with your regular doctor about STI testing. This can feel intimidating, so we got you covered. Here are some examples of how you can bring it up:

    • “Have you ever tested me for any STIs during my checkups?”
    • “How should I know when to get tested for STIs?”
    • “I’ve never been tested for STIs before; do I need to be?”
    • “I’d like to get tested for STIs for some peace of mind, but I’m not sure which ones.”

  • What if I get tested and find out I have an STI?

    First of all, great job getting tested! If you have an STI, you are not alone. They are super common. Talk with your doctor about how to get treated, and start taking the right medication. You should also tell the people you’re having sex with that they should get tested too. This conversation might feel stressful, but again, STIs are so common. If you’re ready to have sex, you’re ready to talk about STIs.

  • Do I have to tell my partner(s) that I have an STI?

    It is crucial to inform your sex partner(s) if you test positive for an STI so they can seek testing and treatment themselves. Doing so as soon as possible limits the spread of STIs and prevents potentially life-threatening complications of STIs. In California, it is illegal to knowingly withhold a positive STI status from your sex partner(s). However, not everyone is able to inform their sex partner(s) for a variety of reasons. Fortunately, your doctor or nurse can help you do so in a completely confidential manner. If you are not able or willing to inform your partner(s) directly, report their name(s) and contact information to your doctor or nurse, who will work with the department of public health to contact your partner(s) on your behalf, without revealing your identity.

  • How can I talk with my partner about getting tested?

    “Hey! I care about you and I care about our health. What do you think about going to get tested together?” 

    Yup, you really can just say that. Or something along those lines! It can feel awkward to bring up STI testing, but talking about getting tested shows you care about yourself and your partner, and what’s sexier than that? Really, the best time to have this conversation is before you start having any kind of sex. But if you didn’t, it’s not too late. It’s actually super common to get tested together–make a date out of it!

  • If I get tested and I don’t have STIs, do I still need to use a condom?

    Condoms are great ways to prevent swapping STIs or getting pregnant. That’s never going to change. If you and your partner both got tested, don’t have STIs, are only having sex with one another, and are using some kind of birth control (if there is both a penis and a vagina in the mix) then it’s possible to stop using condoms. *But* if you’re having any kind of sex with multiple people, or you think that your partner might be having sex with other people, use a condom.

  • What is HIV?

    Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a viral infection that can be spread through anal and vaginal sex and bodily fluids, including blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk. You cannot get HIV from an infected person through kissing, hugging, or sharing food or objects. While there are certain behaviors that can increase your risk for HIV (e.g. sharing needles, having unprotected sex with multiple partners), anybody can become infected with HIV, regardless of sex, gender, or sexual orientation.

    If you are infected with HIV, you might experience flu- or cold-like symptoms about 2 weeks later. If left untreated, HIV can progress to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), a life-threatening disease that suppresses the immune system, years later. While there is no cure or vaccine for HIV, there are very effective treatments known as antiretroviral therapy (ART) that allow people infected with HIV to live long, healthy lives without developing AIDS. 

    Because most people infected with HIV can be asymptomatic for years, regular testing is important. Regular testing for other STIs is also important because certain ones (e.g. chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis) can make you more vulnerable to HIV infection. One of the best ways to prevent HIV (and other STIs) is by using protection during sex (e.g. condoms or dental dams).

  • What is PrEP?

    PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a kind of medication that can majorly reduce your chances of getting HIV. There are two ways to take PreP: 1. daily so you are always protected, or 2. intermittently if you are only occasionally at risk. You can talk to your doctor about which method is right for you. 

    You might want to consider taking PrEP if you don’t have HIV and any of the following apply to you: You have had anal or vaginal sex in the past 6 months and you:

    • Have a sexual partner with HIV 
    • Have not consistently used a condom
    • Have been diagnosed with an STI in the past 6 months


    Interested in seeing if you qualify for free PrEP and PEP in California? Take our quick eligibility quiz here: “How do I get free or cheap care?

  • What is PEP?

    PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) is a kind of medication that can majorly reduce your chances of getting HIV. Unlike PrEP, you take it after potentially being exposed to HIV, instead of before. Specifically, you can take it within 72 hours (3 days) of having either 1. sex without a condom, or 2. sex with a condom mishap (e.g. it ripped or slipped off at some point). HIV exposure is an urgent situation, so it’s best to head to the emergency room of a hospital or to an urgent care clinic to talk with a doctor. You can also use the website to find the provider closest to you.