STI Testing Online: The Pros and Cons
Online STI testing is the ability to obtain testing kits on the internet and receive the results without seeing a doctor or health specialist. Currently home testing kits are available for STIs, infertility, paternity identification and some forms of cancer.
Why Do It?
STIs are rife. Those who've had unprotected sex are at risk of contracting an infection. All forms of sexual contact can spread STIs. Vaginal, anal and oral sex plus sharing sex toys are risky activities.
Some STIs present symptoms such as ulcers, pus, bleeding and pain but others don't have symptoms. Chlamydia for example can remain symptom-free and cause infertility. It's important to get checked for STIs if you've had unprotected sex before they cause serious problems or you could pass it to someone else.
Who Can Do It?
Anyone can purchase an online STI testing kit and receive the results via post, text or phone call. They can also be bought in pharmacies and are sometimes offered in doctor surgeries.
Under 25s can get a free chlamydia and gonorrhoea testing kit from the NHS posted to them.
How Does It Work?
Most self testing kits involve posting a urine sample in the container provided, however treatment is not offered. The next step is to visit a doctor or health clinic for the right medicines.
Given that STIs can be an embarrassing subject, availability online is viewed as a step forward in supporting sexual health. However, some professionals disagree as self-testing kits are not always 100% accurate.
Here are the pro and cons of testing for STIs online.
Pros of Online STI Tests
- Tools such as Channel 4s risk checker guide you through a series of questions to check your current risk of STIs. These are useful tools in that they help people think clearly about their sexual behaviour and what risks they may have taken. It's a first step and one that might not be taken if the only alternative was a doctor's consultation.
- The discretion that online testing offers is the biggest pro. It means people can take STI tests without entering a doctor's surgery or STI clinic. Because some STIs have such serious consequences it's important that people have easy options for testing. Online testing offers a level of discretion like never before.
- It means that more people take STI tests. Antibiotic resistant strains of gonorrhoea have been identified, and medical professionals are concerned about our ability to deal with infections in the future. Online testing has the potential to decrease levels of STIs in circulation and lower our antibiotic use.
- The embarrassment factor is high, but no more so than if someone receives an all clear test and then has unprotected sex meaning they need another. Online kits can be ordered multiple times without embarrassment.
- Online testing takes the fear out of tests. Many people still believe that tests involve scraping metal objects in the genital area (which is not the case), a urine sample in the post is less stressful in comparison.
- It's easy. Without travelling or disrupting your day an STI test is delivered to the door. If a task is easy, people will do it.
Cons Of Online STI testing
- There are problems with online tests, most notably their accuracy. The NHS say it's rare that a self-testing kit gives 100% accuracy and that they're not as helpful as a consultation with a doctor.
- There is room for error on the user's part. A contaminated urine sample for example, temperature changes on route to the lab, or even postal delays can cause a misleading result such as:
False negative - when the test indicates a clear result but there is an infection. This means the person doesn't receive treatment and may spread the disease to others without knowing.
False positive - when the test indicates an infection but there is none. This can create unnecessary embarrassment and upset if the 'infected' person tells their partner.
- Online testing is only the first step - you still need medicine if the test is positive and in order to obtain it your doctor may well perform the test again.
- You won't necessarily have complete peace of mind. A test administered by a clinic is more likely to present an accurate result, plus you'll have access to professional advice.
- If you are taking any medicines they might interfere with the results. In this case some medical advice is needed.
HIV testing kits are also available online. Free kits are available from the NHS to those deemed at higher risk, and pharmacies sell them too. However, HIV self testing kits pose a set of issues around emotional support. In a clinical situation patients are offered counselling, help and support when offered the test and afterwards to manage their condition should the result be positive. Dealing with this in isolation can be traumatic.
Make The Most of An Online Test
Anyone can be screened free of charge at a sexual health clinic, but if you want to use the online option the NHS suggest bearing in mind that some online companies make misleading claims. No online medical test is 100% accurate. Some other tips include:
- Always look for the CE quality mark and ensure the testing kit is sealed.
- The expiry date is important too so make sure it's in date.
- If you are uncertain of the test's quality, don't use it. You could be risking an infection. It's possible to report poor quality testing kits to the Yellow Card Scheme - a scheme whereby you can report defective equipment, medicines and side effects to the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
- Always stick to the kit's' instructions for the best chance of a good result.
The discretion offered by online testing is a big positive for people too embarrassed to seek out professional help or for those with busy lives, so they are an invaluable tool in the fight against STIs. If you choose to use one obtain it from a trusted source and follow the instructions. Once you have the all clear, or your infection is cleared, stock up on condoms and dental dams because they are the only way to prevent STIs.