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The A – Z Of Getting Tested: Updating the Rulebook on Sexual Health

It’s 2024. Like it or not, the risk of sexually transmissible infections (STI) are unfortunately part and parcel of being sexually active. Safe sex behaviours, including regular STI testing and using barrier protection are by and large the best policies to protect you and your sexual partners.

Illustrations by Cass Stevens

In partnership with the Department of Health and Aged Care

Though public awareness of STIs, how they spread, and the damage they can cause to your body (not to mention your sex life) if left untreated, has vastly improved since the sexual revolution of the Sixties, one in six Australians will still test positive for an STI in their lifetime.

From a medical perspective, prevention is always better than a cure for myriad reasons. From a social perspective, using preventative measures and having regular testing is a hell of a lot easier than having to make awkward phone calls. 

Here’s the A-Z of navigating your sexual health and staying STI-free without forgoing your lifestyle.

Asymptomatic. Exactly what it sounds like: no symptoms. However, this doesn’t mean a bill of clean health. Even without symptoms STIs can be transmitted to others and cause serious health issues. Asymptomatic STIs can cause permanent damage to your reproductive system, which can lead to infertility and chronic pain. Chlamydia alone does not cause visible symptoms in 85 – 90 percent of cases. Regular testing is the only way to know you’re good to go.

Beforeplay. Make STI testing your Beforeplay, use protection and book a check-up at health.gov.au/STI

Checking on the reg. Whether you’re single-ing and mingling or in a relationship, regular STI tests are crucial. Talk to your healthcare professional about how often you should test based on your circumstances.

Don’t want to tell your partner you have an STI? You really should as they need to look after their health too. You can talk to your healthcare professional about how to do it, or websites like letthemknow.org.au can give you tips, and can even send messages anonymously. There is no excuse not to let your partner(s) know!

Easy is exactly the word to use to describe STI testing. In Australia, it really is a very simple and accessible process that comes at very little cost when you weigh the benefits (most of us can do it on our lunch break and often, it’s free with a Medicare card through any GP who bulk bills).

FFS, get tested, and avoid having to say this to yourself.

Gonorrhoea. In 2022 there were 32,877 gonorrhoea cases identified in Australia. It’s common enough that you shouldn’t feel like a silly-billy if you test positive, but bad enough in the worst of cases that you should definitely avoid it and test regularly. It can infect many areas of the body and symptoms aren’t always obvious. But in most cases, it can be treated.

Illustrations by Cass Stevens

HIV. Despite decades of public messaging about the importance of using protection, and leaps and bounds in the medical field for people living with, or at risk of, HIV, HIV is still here. You don’t need us to tell you prevention is the only way to avoid it. Regular testing helps reduce the risk of transmitting HIV onwards. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) can reduce your chance of acquiring HIV, particularly when combined with regular testing. Talk to your healthcare professional about your circumstances so they can recommend the best PrEP regimen for you.

I am a mean, clean, healthy STI-free machine (is what you’ll say, mid air-punch, when you know you’re hunky-dory).

Just use protection. There’s a reason the medical community bang this drum until it’s busted – prevention is always better and protection is easy and cheap – individual condoms in a pack cost less than a latte (yeah, we all hate buying condoms, but to coin a phrase: just do it). 

K-L-A-mydia. Jokes – it’s chlamydia, the most frequently reported STI in Australia. Don’t let Coach Carr from Mean Girls get in the way of knowing that however you spell it, it ain’t a goal. Regular testing means you can get on top of it without waiting for symptoms (which are often hidden until they’ve caused their damage to your reproductive system – again, not a goal).

Learning is liberating. Don’t be embarrassed or feel ashamed for testing positive for any STI. The key to treating STIs and reducing transmission is early detection and treatment. While many treatments available are easy and affordable, they shouldn’t be treated as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Everybody is different, meaning efficacy can vary (not to mention symptoms can do more than just ruin your day).

Making love, doing the horizontal folk dance, screwing, boinking – we don’t have enough pages for all the euphemisms. But whatever you call it, it’s supposed to be fun. Keep it that way by testing beforehand, yeah?

Not sure where to get tested? That’s fair, most doctor’s surgeries don’t have neon signs — but that’s where to start. You can get tested by your regular doctor, but that’s not your only option — any doctor or GP can do it, and tests are also available at sexual and reproductive health services, Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, community health centres and Medicare Urgent Care Clinics. For more info, hit up health.gov.au/STI.

Online is where you’ll find a tonne of great information that will stimulate the mind. But when it comes to sexual health, ask a healthcare professional with a degree instead of Dr Google. If you do want to use the web, check out health.gov.au/STI for more information on STIs and how to connect with sexual health services in your area.

Protection is vital. One little bit of latex can save you and your partner(s) a great deal of worry and regret. It costs little, takes seconds, and is so, so easy to use. Use a new condom every time you switch between oral, anal or vaginal sex, and remember: condoms don’t prevent all STIs all of the time – anyone who is sexually active should have regular sexual health check-ups.

Questions. STIs throw up many. But you’re in luck – it’s 2024 and answers you can trust are aplenty. Get them from a healthcare professional. 

Rubber up. Condoms aren’t your partner’s responsibility. STIs don’t care if you met that night or it’s a forever sitch – have them on hand and use them – if for nothing more than a better night’s sleep (after the fun bit).

Illustrations by Cass Stevens

Syphilis can easily be chalked up as an old-timey disease that saw the demise of many a king, painter, and writer, but it still exists today, and it can be devastating if left untreated. Syphilis can result in brain infections, dementia, lung and heart failure, blindness and death. A pregnant person with untreated syphilis can pass it onto their unborn baby (congenital syphilis). This can cause miscarriage, stillbirths or the baby to die shortly after birth, or suffer permanent organ and brain damage.

Unlike Oscar Wilde, you can get a test and curable treatment long before you’re forever looking up at the stars.

Treatments. Before the best part we need the test part, and we are lucky to live in a time where treatments for STIs exist. There are much sexier modern miracles we laud as game-changing (anybody with an air fryer knows) – but while they might be boring dinner party fodder, there’s no shame in seeking help from a doctor if you think you need medication to manage an STI. Serious health impacts as a result of infections are for the most part avoidable, if testing and treatment are carried out in a timely manner. Prevention is still a better love story than antibiotics (and again, symptoms are a big vibe killer).

Urine samples are non-invasive and take a couple of minutes, in private. They are an important part of testing, and everybody knows how to tinkle. Don’t be scared of the little plastic jar – it’s a piece of piss.

Vaginal swabs (and anal swabs) aren’t used to test every STI, and there are only a few instances a doctor will ask. Your healthcare professional will decide what type of sample they need. Most of the time, you can do them yourself, and they are safe and easy.

Worse: how symptoms get when left untreated. You can’t cranberry-juice yourself out of painful situations when you’re copping an STI, but you can get rid of them pretty fast by getting diagnosed and treated when they first appear.

X is the chromosome we all have, whatever gender you identify as. That’s how STIs work too. It doesn’t matter who you are, your relationship status, or how you have sex – STIs don’t discriminate and it’s important we all get tested for this very reason.

You could impact your own (or a sexual partner’s) fertility. Some STIs, when left untreated, can cause inflammation and infection of the testicles and prostate, which can reduce sperm count. They can also cause pelvic inflammatory disease which can affect the uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes. Infertility can result if the infection is not treated properly. 

Zzz. You’ll be punching more of these with ease going to bed knowing you’re safe (alone, or with company).

And there you have it – now you know your ABCs (of sexual health). Remember to make STI testing your Beforeplay and keep it clean when you’re having fun.

Use protection and book a check-up today. Visit health.gov.au/STI for more information. 

I like safe sex