Getting tested for a sexually transmitted infection (STI) used to mean driving to your doctor's office or a local clinic, waiting to be seen, taking the actual test and then going home to wait for your results. Now, there's the option to test for STIs in the comfort of your own home, thanks to a test that recently received approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
That test is called Simple 2, and it's the first over-the-counter diagnostic test for chlamydia and gonorrhea with at-home sample collection to be granted marketing authorization by the FDA. Before that, the only tests the FDA cleared for chlamydia or gonorrhea were done with samples that were collected at a doctor's office or clinic. (Worth noting: There are other STI tests on the market you can do at home — they're just not FDA cleared.)
The news comes as STI cases continue to soar in the U.S., especially for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. But how does home STI testing work and what do doctors think of going this route? Here's the deal.
How to test for STIs at home
Every home STI test is a little different. However, the Simple 2 test uses vaginal swabs from people who have a vagina or urine specimens from those with a penis to test for chlamydia and gonorrhea. To use it, you fill out a health questionnaire online, collect the specimen at home using the collection kit and send it with overnight shipping to a designated lab for testing using the prepaid, pre-addressed packet.
The results are delivered online, with a health care provider following up if there's a positive or invalid test result. LetsGetChecked, which makes the test, promises results in two to five days.
Most other home STI test kits involve a vaginal or penile swab, or collecting a urine specimen, and sending it to a company or lab.
How effective is at-home STI testing?
Experts say these tests are considered effective. "We know from many studies that patients are very able to collect good specimens on themselves in their genital area to test for sexually transmitted infections, including chlamydia and gonorrhea," Dr. Gale Burstein, commissioner of the Erie County Department of Health, in New York, and clinical professor of pediatrics at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at University at Buffalo, tells Yahoo Life.
LetsGetChecked, which also offers bundled tests for five or eight different STIs, notes that samples are processed in the same labs used by primary care providers, hospitals and government organizations.
Why is at-home STI testing important?
Doctors point out that this isn't a rapid test — meaning, you can't swab yourself and get results within a few minutes like you can with a home COVID-19 test. However, many of them still extol the use of home STI testing. "This is an important step forward," Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life.
For one, it's more convenient. "The main value is that people can check their status for chlamydia and gonorrhea whenever they want, and as frequently as they want, without having to make appointments with their primary care provider," Marybec Griffin, assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior, Society & Policy at the Rutgers School of Public Health, tells Yahoo Life. "There may be a bit of a wait otherwise."
Going the home testing route can also be helpful for people who feel embarrassed to get tested, Griffin says. "It removes the element of having to go into the office and being worried you'll run into someone you know or having fear of judgement from a provider," she says.
Griffin stresses that STI testing is "a normal, routine part of health care and it shouldn't be anything to be ashamed of." But having an at-home STI test available raises the odds that people will actually get tested — provided they can afford the test. The Simple 2 test, for example, costs $99 per kit, or just over $69 if you sign up for a subscription service.
While Adalja applauds the use of the current STI kits, he says that "actual home tests like we have for COVID, influenza and HIV are needed." This, he says, "will increase access to diagnostic testing, which is often taboo for both patients and doctors."
How to get accurate home STI test results
Doctors say the best way to get accurate home STI test results is to follow the manufacturer's instructions. However, there are a few other things you can do to increase the chances of getting a good specimen. "Make sure you feel relaxed," Griffin says. "People can get really pee shy," which can make it more challenging to get a proper urine sample. If you're taking a swab, she recommends doing a complete circle with the swab. "When in doubt, do it again," she says.
A big thing to keep in mind, according to Griffin: Put your sample directly into the testing vial or container provided right after you take it. "Don't put it on the counter," she cautions. "If the cotton part of the swab is on the counter, it will get contaminated."
Overall, doctors say that home tests can be as accurate as getting tested in a lab if you get a good sample. "This is a great way and a different tool to help people take charge of their own sexual health," Griffin says.