Are online STI tests safe, do they work and where can you buy them?
By Abigail Malbon
We’re all adults here; we know that if we’re sexually active we should be attending regular sexual health check-ups – but knowing this doesn’t stop the embarrassment of having to sit in a clinic waiting room feeling anxious.
Which is where online sexually transmitted infection (STI) tests come in handy. For those who feel nervous about visiting a sexual health centre, or simply don’t have the time, there are now a number of services offering STI tests online. But do they really work, and which ones can you trust?
GP and medical director at Your Sexual Health Dr Rashid Bani tells Netdoctor what to look out for when considering an online STI test:
Is it possible to take an STI test online?
‘When we talk about online STI tests it generally refers to tests that you purchase online and carry out at home rather than visiting a clinic,’ Dr Bani explains. ‘Some tests will be carried out by posting a sample (either urine or blood) back to the laboratory, while others are carried out at home by taking a swab or blood sample and then testing it against a chemical to get the result.’
Are online STI tests reliable?
‘You’ll see a range of online STD tests available on big online marketplaces, but I would wholeheartedly recommend that you don’t purchase any instant tests and you opt for a laboratory based test instead,’ advises Dr Bani. ‘Instant at-home tests regularly return false negatives because they are carried out wrong, the results or instructions aren’t always clear, and worse still if you test positive you are left to deal with the consequences without medical advice.’
‘After contacting a doctor, it is likely you will not be able to obtain treatment without carrying out another test as the doctor may not have confidence in your home test,’ he adds.
💡 Talk to a pharmacist before buying a test and check the kit is sealed, has a CE assurance mark and is within its expiry date before using.
If you have concerns about the quality of a self-test kit (if it’s damaged, for example), you should report it using the Yellow Card Scheme. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has more advice about buying medical devices online.
How do they work?
‘With our home STD tests we will post a sample collection kit to your door,’ says Dr Bani. ‘This contains a sample container, everything you need to take the sample, clear instructions and a return envelope which you put the sample in and send to our lab. All the patient has to do is take their sample and post it back and we take care of the rest.
‘Results will take 1 to 4 days to return depending on the test and we’ll notify the customer either via telephone or through our website portal depending on their preference.
‘If the test returns positive and they need medication or a referral for treatment, we take care of all of that. We also offer a free telephone consultation with a GP to discuss their results if the test is positive.’
How much do they cost?
Prices vary depending on your area, and some may offer services that give out free STI kits – particularly to those under 25 or at higher risk of HIV.
‘The cost will depend on the test that the patient takes and can range anywhere from £35 to test for one condition to £225 for a comprehensive screen,’ says Dr Bani.
Alternatively, everyone in the UK can get free tests on the NHS for any STI, including HIV, from their GP or local sexual health clinic.
What can you test for?
‘Online STD tests can test for any STD,’ says Dr Bani. ‘The ones that we offer test against the common ones (chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis, HIV), but we also test against less known STDs that are still really prevalent, including trichomonas vaginalis, mycoplasma genitalium and ureaplasma amongst others.
‘There are some tests that we can’t offer as at home tests such as our Early Detection tests. That’s because they require a larger quantity of blood which cannot be obtained through a simple finger prick method that you can do at home.’
What’s the difference between an at-home test and visiting a clinic?
‘Testing at home is much more discreet than visiting a clinic,’ says Dr Bani. ‘For many people it’s also much more convenient if they lead a busy life.
‘In terms of the test itself, if you’re carrying out a laboratory test then you’ll get the same results whether you’re testing at-home or at the clinic.’
How can you get results?
‘All of our results are either discussed over the phone or sent through our website,’ Dr Bani explains. ‘It depends on the results and the customer’s preference. We’ll usually let customers know positive results over the telephone if we can. This allows us to discuss them. However, a lot of customers specifically ask for no phone contact, which is fine.’
When is it important to visit a clinic?
‘Most of the time you can’t diagnose an STD without getting tested,’ says Dr Bani. ‘For example you might have symptoms of an STD, but you can’t say with 100 per cent certainty what STD it is until you get tested. Likewise you might have no symptoms, but you need to get tested to know you have an STD.
‘Now whether you visit a clinic or test at home doesn’t matter, the important thing is the test itself. Once you have an accurate test from a reputable STD testing provider you’ll be able to get treatment and that’s the same whether you visit a clinic or test at home.
‘The only time I might say it’s definitely worth seeing a doctor is if you have alesion such as an ulcer, sore or blister this may be seen during a genital herpes outbreak or syphilis infection. A doctor will then be able to examine you and possibly offer treatment whilst a test is carried out.’