If your sex education was anything like mine at school, you were probably left feeling clueless. My knowledge of STIs was so limited. I basically just thought if I had funny discharge or an itchy vagina, then I needed to panic. The only thing I did learn was that it’s never a solution to ignore the situation entirely. It’s always better to get checked and know what you might be dealing with. Anything is better than trying to self-diagnose on the internet and convincing yourself you’re dying from some obscure fungal infection.
Whether you had a rogue unprotected one-night stand in Freshers’, casual sex with multiple partners, or you’re in a long-term relationship, you should get checked out. Remember that if you’re a woman only having sex with female partners you can still get STIs from sexual interactions, so make sure to get checked too. As a general rule, if you’re sexually active then you should go for an STI test every six months. In Exeter, the easiest place to get checked is at the Walk-In Centre on Sidwell Street. You can either book an appointment in advance by phoning 01392 276892 or you can go on the day and have a walk-in appointment. There are walk-in appointments available Monday-Friday 9:30-15:30 and Saturdays for contraception only from 10:00-13:00. If possible, I would definitely recommend booking an appointment in advance because if you go for a walk-in appointment and it’s busy, you can end up waiting for a couple of hours. It’s worth bringing a book for the wait.
When you turn up for the appointment, you’ll be given a form with a number of statements and asked to tick the ones which apply to you. These give the nurses a better idea of the type of assistance you need, whether you have symptoms, are having a routine check, want emergency contraception, think you might be pregnant, etc.
The actual appointment itself is honestly nothing to worry about. You may feel embarrassed about discussing intimate details with nurses, but keep in mind that this is their job, they’re not going to judge you and guaranteed they’ll always have heard worse stories. You’ll be asked a number of questions about your most recent sexual partners, either your four most recent or the partners you’ve had since your last appointment. They’ll ask you a few details about each partner, such as whether you had oral, anal or vaginal sex, whether it was protected or unprotected, and the partner’s country of origin. These questions may feel very personal, but it’s important to answer honestly so they’re fully informed about your sexual history and any support/treatment you may need. Remember that all information is confidential: it won’t even be shared with your GP unless you give explicit permission.
If you don’t have any symptoms, you’ll do your own vaginal swab and have a blood sample taken. The swab tests for STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhoea, and the blood sample is to check for HIV and syphilis. The swab is basically a stick with a cotton bud on the end, which you insert into your vagina (like a tampon), swirl around for 15-20 seconds, and then put into a provided tube with a screw-top lid, and snap off the end of the stick. Very simple.
If you do have symptoms, the nurse will also do a genital examination. Obviously, this is a bit more invasive than just doing a vaginal swab yourself, but the best advice for this is to stay relaxed and not tense. Don’t worry, it doesn’t take long. And, if you’re as lucky as my housemate, you may even get told that you have a ‘beautiful cervix’.
As a bonus, you also get free condoms! You can choose from standard, maxi-sized and flavoured – how fun. In terms of receiving your results, you can have them texted or emailed. You’ll receive results within a week. If the results are positive, you’ll have a follow-up appointment at the clinic to discuss further treatment. In most cases, STIs are treatable and curable, and further help, such as a counsellor, can be provided. Just remember that support and treatment will be available, so if you test positive it’s not the end of the world.
STI appointments are nowhere near as scary or embarrassing as they can be made out to be. The nurses who take your appointments are all professionals and will treat you in a totally professional manner. It’s always better to know either way, so just go. And please take advantage of the free condoms, they can save a lot of future angst.
Enjoy your Freshers’ fun, but stay safe.
– Katrina Bennett