For a large part of my life, sex was a massive taboo. Growing up in a conservative, Christian household, my relationship with sexual health has been a turbulent one. But, having spoken to many of my university friends about it, I realise how little information people have about what getting STI tested in Durham is really like. Just the other week, one of my friends called me in tears because she’d slept with a man who refused to wear a condom and she had no idea about how to book an appointment.
Anyone who has ever tried to figure out the ‘rules’ for getting tested will know that there are nuggets of information that you can only get from speaking to someone, but this can be difficult for some people to do.
I’m hoping I can share my experience with you and maybe calm your nerves if you’ve never been to a clinic before, so you’ll know exactly what to expect.
One important thing to mention before I get into talking about the test itself, is that there is a specific period of time you’ll have to wait between having sex with someone and getting tested. This is because the test will not necessarily give a reliable result before the infection has had time to develop – just like with a pregnancy test. So please don’t make the same mistake I did when I first went to get tested; i.e. don’t go to a walk-in clinic 2 days after having sex thinking you’ll be tested straight away – you’ll just be turned away and told to come back in a few weeks. The wait times are: 2 weeks for the chlamydia and gonorrhoea test, and 3 months for syphilis, HIV, and hepatitis C and B. There’s quite a big difference in these times so if you want to get one test done earlier for the peace of mind and do the other one later, the nurses are completely fine with that.
Finding out which clinic to go to, at what times, and for what reason is the next hurdle. In Durham, the easiest clinic to get to is the GUM clinic at the University Hospital of North Durham. Before going, I found a mixed bag of information online and got caught up in a mess of hyperlinks trying to navigate the different NHS websites, so I ended up calling the clinic. Turns out you have to call to book an appointment anyway, but the lady who answered the phone had plenty of advice for figuring out the best time for me to go.
Because I had no symptoms, it was recommended that I come to the new walk-in service that they offer on Saturday afternoons. This runs from 13:00 to 15:20 (but to make sure you get a slot, arrive before 2:40) and is solely for those who don’t have symptoms but want to get tested just in case. Other walk-in services are open on Mondays from 9:00 to 15:30, and Wednesdays from 9:00 to 11:30. If going to wait doesn’t suit you though, and you’d rather have a fixed slot, then it’s easy to book one during the week – if I wanted one, the receptionist could have booked me in for an appointment within 7 days.*
Once you’ve found a time to go to the clinic, you’ve done the hard part. Now all you’ve got to do is get there and take the test. I recommend bringing water, snacks and some form of entertainment with you, especially if you’re going to the walk-in clinics as you could be waiting there for an hour or so. I ended up waiting for about 40 minutes and strangely I spent that time watching Sex Education on Netflix. Reception will also ask you to fill out a confidential form with some personal information- info about your sex life and contact details- just so that they can get you the correct doctor and send you your results via text.
The standard test itself includes a blood test and either a urine sample for men (AMAB) or a vagina swab for women (AFAB). If you have symptoms, the doctor may ask to take a look to help diagnose a problem. While the urine test is self-explanatory – I’m not sure it’s possible to mess up peeing into a cup – the swab causes a bit more anxiety, when it’s nothing to worry about at all. It’s the same shape as a cotton bud, but longer, and it’s completely painless. Some people worry about ‘getting it wrong’, but it wouldn’t be self-done if it wasn’t easy. As long as you don’t rush, it’ll be okay.
The blood test is another intimidating concept for some, especially if you’ve never had one before. Personally, I can’t stand needles and get dizzy and lightheaded every time I come into contact with them, but they’re never as bad as I think. If you’re feeling nervous about it, firstly make sure you’ve had something to eat beforehand to stop your blood sugars dropping. I always lie down during the test too, which helps with the light-headedness. Last time I went the nurse gave me some Lucozade and digestives to perk me up afterwards! Also, some people might think this sounds strange, but I like to ask for a 3-2-1 countdown for the needle so that I can sort out my breathing. The nurses will respect you whichever way you cope with needles, so there’s no need to worry about reacting badly – they’ve seen it all before and their primary concern is making sure you’re okay.
After that, you’re all done. In theory you’ll get your results back within 10-14 days, but I got the all clear in 6. If for whatever reason the clinic needs to see you again, they will contact you to arrange an appointment time that suits you.
It takes guts to overcome the stigma of getting STI tested, but it’s a fact of university life (and life in general), and it’s so important to keep your sexual health in check. If you’re still worried about getting tested, you can always ask a friend to go with you, or you can talk to the welfare officers in your college for more advice.
*The GUM clinic at the University Hospital of North Durham is currently carrying out assessments by phone due to Covid-19.
Featured image by @DurexUK instagram