Getting tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may not be the most pleasant experience but if you’re sexually active, it should be something you do on the regular.
Infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhea often only show mild symptoms (or none at all) so it’s important to not use, ‘but everything seems okay down there’ as an excuse to swerve getting checked.
Some sexually transmitted infections can cause complications such as infertility and pelvic inflammatory disease if left untreated, so it makes sense to keep on top of your sexual health.
Despite this, many of us delay getting tested as we’re either a) embarrassed (don’t be, they really have seen it all before), b) nervous or c) struggle to find time to make it to the local clinic.
However, none of these excuses fly thanks to the invention of home STI tests. That’s right, you can get a kit delivered to your door so you can do all the fiddly bits yourself. Easy…right?
Are home STI tests free?
Depending on your age and/or the area you live, you may be eligible for a free home test kit for certain STIs.
Your best bet is to see if you live in one of the 20 areas currently serviced by SH:24 (a sexual health organisation working in partnership with the NHS) or Google ‘free home STI test [insert your hometown here]’ to see what’s available in your area.
Certain areas also offer free chlamydia testing kits for those under 25 – see if you’re eligible through the NHS.
If you don’t qualify for a freebie, don’t despair – you can buy one from a private company such as Fettle (the paid-for version of SH:24), Zava or Lloyds Pharmacy.
When should I not take a home STI test?
SH:24 advises going straight to the clinic if one or more of the following applies to you:
How does self-testing work?
I tried the Zava basic STI test for women, £122.99, which checks for gonorrhea (vaginal, anal and oral), chlamydia (vaginal, anal and oral), HIV and syphilis.
I had to fill out an initial questionnaire so a Zava doctor could prescribe the kit for me. It got approved and sent out the same day, arriving at my door a few days later in very discreet packaging (you can also pay extra for next day delivery).
My kit contained three swabs (one for my mouth, vagina and anus) and a blood collection kit, along with detailed instructions on what to do with it all.
The swabbing was easy – you’ve just got to be comfortable inserting swabs inside yourself – and taking your own blood sounds scary but it’s pretty stress-free.
Those with needle phobias can breathe easy as blood is collected used a spring-loaded, single-use lancet.
I recommend soaking your finger in warm water for a few minutes prior to blood collection to make it more comfortable. The first time I took my own blood I failed to do this and it was sore – I can confirm the warm water soaking makes it much less painful.
I find it easier when I whack on loud music, take a deep breath and press the lancet in on a heavy beat.
Swabs are popped into containers (make sure you label these correctly) and put safely into the return box along with the blood sample, and posted to Zava using the pre-paid envelope.
Whichever type of kit you use, make sure you read the instructions carefully before starting as some companies require you to do the test on certain days of the week/times of day.
Zava has doctors working seven days a week so it doesn’t matter what day you post your kit off, but other companies may only have doctors available Monday to Friday. This means if you post your bodily juices off on a Friday they’ll be left festering all weekend, rendering them unusable.
I dropped my samples off to the postbox on a Friday afternoon for the evening collection, and got my results back the following Tuesday by way of an email telling me to log into my Zava account.
You’ll be pleased to hear I tested negative for everything. I celebrated by having unprotected sex with a stranger.
(I joke, I joke)
How do I know if my kit is legit?
Any kit obtained via the NHS will be of high quality, but what if you don’t qualify for an NHS kit and need to buy one from a private company?
Your first port of call should be checking that the kit you’re about to buy has a CE quality assurance mark, and is licensed for sale in the UK.
‘Not all companies that are producing these kits have fully calibrated equipment which is approved by a CE mark for medical devices, known as a MDD or MDR,’ says Dr Asif Munaf, founder of home blood testing and IV company Endorance.
‘Make sure the kit you use has the CE mark so you can some sense of trust that the device will be reading what is supposed to be reading.’
You may have to contact the company directly to enquire about the CE mark. Zava, for example confirmed that while their kit isn’t CE marked, all the components of it are.
The NHS recommends checking that your self-test kit is sealed, without damage to the packaging, and within its expiry date.
If you have concerns about the quality of a self-test kit, report it via the Yellow Card Scheme.
Is home STI testing as accurate as going to the clinic?
We’ve established that home STI testing is easy, but is it as accurate as getting your bits out at the clinic?
Research shows that self-tests are as accurate as their clinician counterparts. However the NHS states that ‘no self-test is 100% reliable’. In fact, no STI test is 100% accurate, including those done at the clinic.
To ensure a higher rate of accuracy, ensure you follow the instructions carefully e.g. providing enough blood, swabbing all required areas of your mouth for the advised length of time.
It’s also important to remember that there’s a ‘window period’ for certain infections between catching them and them showing up in a test.
Chlamydia and gonorrhea can take up to two weeks, HIV up to four weeks, and syphilis up to 12 weeks.
What happens if a result comes back positive?
For certain infections such as chlamydia, medication can be prescribed and posted to you (for a fee if via a private service).
For infections such as HIV, syphilis or Hepatitis B or C, a clinician will contact you and advise on your next steps, which will usually involve visiting a clinic, and seeking emotional support.
Home STI tests make it easier for you to bury your head in the sand if you receive a positive result, but it’s important not to for both your physical and mental wellbeing.
‘The use of home kits often mean users don’t seem medical help which they ought to even if they have suspicion of an STD with tell-tale symptoms such as burning when urinating, skin discoloration and changes and foul-smelling discharge,’ explains Dr Munaf.
‘This can not only make the infection worse it can spread it to other people the person comes into contact with.’
While home STI testing can be expensive if you don’t qualify for a free one, studies have shown that offering young people a home test kit almost doubles uptake than if they are offered a test at the clinic.
However you choose to do it, just make sure you get regularly tested (at least once a year) and that you act on the results.
‘My advice is that if you have suspicion of STD than go to seek medical help preferably via your GP or walk-in sexual health clinic,’ says Dr Munaf.
‘If that’s not possible, then at the very least buy your kit from a company that has doctors who analyse your results.’
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