Sexwise asked Jess Bolton, writer and sexual health enthusiast, to review the free home STI tests that are now offered by sexual health services around the UK.
Ever since I had my first STI test ten years ago I’ve been a regular at the clinic. I follow testing guidelines, so I go once a year or every time I change partners. I care deeply about my bod and my sexual health, and I want to make sure I can keep having safe and fun sex without putting my partners at risk. The thing is though, as much as I love being on top of my sexual health, testing itself can be hard to make time for.
Most areas in the UK now offer free home STI testing. This is where you take ‘samples’ (swabs, urine tests or blood tests) yourself and post them to a lab. You then receive your results without having to go to a clinic. I ordered one of these kits so that I could check it out and then give you the skinny on what the process is actually like.
Before I tell you about my experience, here are some things to bear in mind:
- I live in Hackney in London so I ordered a kit from SHL.UK. Use this Sexwise list to find out how to get a kit near you. If your area isn’t listed, check your local sexual health service’s website for availability.
- If there isn’t a free service near you you can also pay for one - here’s a list of some services providing paid-for STI testing kits (tell us if you've used any others you'd recommend!)
So without further ado, here’s how it went down!
I get a message from Sexwise asking if I’d like to trial an online STI testing service. It sounds fun, and I’m due my annual check-up, I say an enthusiastic ‘yes’ and go straight to the SHL.UK website. I register for the service and answer some questions before I can order my kit. They ask me who I have sex with and questions about my sexual health (“have you completed treatment for syphilis?”). In under ten minutes they tell me they’re popping a test kit in the post.
The post arrives. There’s a small, plain grey parcel for me which I open to reveal… *drumroll* ...my STI test! I head straight upstairs to the bathroom.
The box contains a vaginal swab to test me for chlamydia and gonorrhoea. If, unlike me, you’ve got a penis, expect to be peeing into a cute little silver thing called a urine collection pouch instead. All test kits come with a blood test, too, which tests for HIV and syphilis as standard. If you’re a sex worker or a man who has sex with men (you don’t have to identify as a man to fit into this category, you just have to have a penis) you might be sent two more swabs - one for your throat and one for your bum.
I start with the vaginal swab. The instructions say to insert the swab into my vagina and twist it five to ten times, which is exactly what I do (aiming to please, I opt for ten). I find it helps to put one foot on the toilet seat like I’m putting in a tampon. All in all it actually feels quite familiar.
I then move on to the blood test, which is a little bit more nerve wracking. The test works by making a tiny prick in your fingertip with a lancet. You then squeeze out some blood into the little tube they give you. I’ve heard some tips and tricks to make this part of the test easier - running your hand under hot water increases your circulation, which makes it easier to get enough blood into the tube. Pricking the side of your fingertip instead of your finger pad means if it’s a bit sore you can get straight on with some typing or guitar playing (whatever floats your goat) without it feeling bruised. I take both of these tips on board before I take the plunge.
It’s a bit tough trying to psych myself up to pricking my finger with the lancet but when I do it it’s not painful. I have no problem filling the tube (maybe because I soaked my hand in a delightful foot bath of warm water beforehand - STI testing is self care y’all). There are three lancets included in the kit in case it takes you more than one go to get up to the 600 mark on the side of the tube. There’s minimal mess but I find a little plaster in the box and stick it to my finger, only for it to fall off a few minutes later.
I put both samples back into the box, which cleverly doubles up as a freepost box for sending them to the lab (yay free!), and trot off to the post box on the corner of my street.
The following Tuesday
I get a text telling me to log into my SHL online profile to see my results. The results page says I’ve tested negative for chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV. The whole process is over and it’s taken a grand total of about 45 minutes of my time!
When should you test for STIs?
Generally you should get an STI test once a year, unless you change partners in that time. It’s a good idea to get an STI test every time you change partners, even if you’ve been using condoms. It’s especially important to get tested if you’ve had high-risk sex or if you’ve got symptoms (check the Sexwise STI pages to find out what they are).
When can you use a home test?
Home STI testing is a great way of saving time and effort but it’s not always appropriate - if you’ve got symptoms it’s better to go to the clinic so you can see a clinician face-to-face. It’s important to remember you have to wait a while after having sex before an STI will show up on a test, and the amount of time (called a ‘window period’) is different for each STI. You can read about these on Sexwise’s STI pages.
What happens if your results aren’t negative?
If you do get a positive or a ‘reactive’ result (one that requires further testing) you might get a call from a clinician instead of going onto the portal to collect your results. You’ll then have to go to a clinic for further testing or treatment. If you test positive for chlamydia you can order treatment from SHL and it will turn up to your front door in a plain grey envelope, just like the STI test. Not all postal testing services offer this aspect - but if they do they will let you know.
Remote STI testing is great. It’s quick, easy and a good way to stay on top of your sexual health without spending hours in your local clinic - 10/10 would recommend.
Jess Bolton is a writer and self-proclaimed sex toy enthusiast on a mission to demystify good sex. Her method? Talking in detail about the ins and outs of sex and sexuality, without shying away from the icky stuff. When she’s not writing about the wonderful world of sex you’ll find her munching hash browns or flying her drone in Victoria Park. Say hey to her on Instagram or Twitter