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How do health care providers diagnose a sexually transmitted disease or sexually transmitted infection (STD/STI)?

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Any person who is sexually active should discuss his or her risk factors for STDs/STIs with a health care provider and ask about getting tested. If you are sexually active, it is important to remember that you may have an STD/STI and not know it because many STDs/STIs do not cause symptoms. You should get tested and have regular checkups with a health care provider who can help assess and manage your risk, answer your questions, and diagnose and treat an STD/STI if needed.

Starting treatment quickly is important to prevent transmission of infections to other people and to minimize the long-term complications of STDs/STIs. Recent sexual partners should also be treated to prevent re-infection and further transmission.

Some STDs/STIs may be diagnosed during a physical exam or through microscopic examination of a sore or fluid swabbed from the vagina, penis, or anus. This fluid can also be cultured over a few days to see whether infectious bacteria or yeast can be detected. The effects of human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes genital warts and cervical cancer, can be detected in a woman when her health care provider performs a pap smear test and takes samples of cells from the cervix to be checked microscopically for abnormal changes.1 Blood tests are used to detect infections such as hepatitis A, B, and C or HIV/AIDS.

Because sexually transmitted diseases are passed from person to person and can have serious health consequences, the health department notifies people if they have been exposed to certain STDs/STIs. Not all STDs/STIs are reported, though. If you receive a notice, it is important to see a health care provider, be tested, and start treatment right away.

Screening is especially important for pregnant women, because many STDs/STIs can be passed on to the fetus during pregnancy or delivery. During an early prenatal visit, with the help of her health care provider, an expectant mother should be screened for these infections, including HIV  and syphilis. Some of these STDs/STIs can be cured with drug treatment, but not all of them. However, even if the infection is not curable, a pregnant woman can usually take measures to protect her infant from infection.2


  1. Saslow, D., Solomon, D., Lawson, H. W., Killackey, M., Kulasingam, S. L., Cain, J., et al. ACS-ASCCP-ASCP Cervical Cancer Guideline Committee. (2012). American Cancer Society, American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology, and American Society for Clinical Pathology screening guidelines for the prevention and early detection of cervical cancer. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 62, 147–172. [top]
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012, February 27). STDs & Pregnancy-CDC Fact Sheet. Retrieved July 11, 2012, from http://www.cdc.gov/std/pregnancy/STDFact-Pregnancy.htm [top]

Last Updated Date: 04/02/2013
Last Reviewed Date: 05/28/2013
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