Do Home STI Tests From The Drugstore Really Work?

photographed by Ruby Woodhouse.
In theory, getting tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) should be something that calms you down at a time of uncertainty and stress. But often the process of making an appointment, peeing in a cup, and then waiting for someone to call with the results can be anxiety-inducing in and of itself. Luckily, there is a way around some of the potential discomfort: at-home STI tests.
For between $79 and $299, you can buy a one-time STI testing kit at a drugstore or online. Some tests are more comprehensive than others, but most will check for chlamydia and gonorrhea. Others cover a larger variety of STIs, such as trichomoniasis, gardnerella, HIV, syphilis, mycoplasma, ureaplasma, and herpes simplex virus (I and II). Depending on the test, kits typically include materials to collect samples of your urine, blood, or vaginal secretions, and a self-addressed box that you use to send your samples back to the company. Once the lab evaluates your samples, you can access your results a few days later.
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Now, are these at-home STI tests as legit as the ones you can get from a doctor's office or healthcare provider? Well, most companies that sell direct-to-consumer STI tests use the same labs as doctors do to examine the samples that people send in. Of course, since you're the one collecting the urine sample or vaginal swab, there's a slight chance that you could screw it up. But in general, self-collected samples for STI testing, whether they're done at home or in a clinic, tend to compare well with the ones performed by clinicians, says Annie-Laurie McRee, DrPH, FSAHM, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, who has studied home STI tests.
Besides the convenience factor, at-home testing for STIs has the potential to increase access for people who don't have easy access to care, or can't afford to take time off to make an appointment, Dr. McRee says. "By offering privacy, it may make it easier for some [who] may be uncomfortable talking with their health care provider about STIs, or those who perceive stigma or judgement of asking for a test," she says. Or if you're uncomfortable with someone else performing a genital exam, using a home test could make the process much easier, she says.
That said, there are a few factors that you should consider before opting for a home test. The at-home tests tend to be quite pricey, so you should explore whether or not your insurance will cover a test outside of a clinical setting, Dr. McRee says. (Depending on the state where you live, you could qualify to a free test kit.) Also, it's important to keep in mind that testing alone isn't as comprehensive as meeting with a doctor or healthcare provider IRL, she says. If you test positive with an STI, it's super important to follow up with treatment and let your partners know so they can be treated, too, she says.
Ultimately, getting tested — and taking the appropriate steps for treatment — should be a priority. Over the summer, the Centers for Disease Control declared that STIs are "a hidden epidemic" in America. "Rates of routine screening for STIs among sexually active adolescents and young adults are far below recommended levels," Dr. McRee says. If at-home STI testing gets more people tested and talking about STIs — then everyone wins.
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