Real Sex Ed

Ask Elizabeth

This article discusses a mature topic. Our 17-year-old and younger readers are encouraged to read this with an adult.

Hello, everyone! Welcome to my sexual health column, Ask Elizabeth, where I’ll answer your questions about sex, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and everything in between. I’m a Planned Parenthood health educator, so my goal is to provide you with 100% factual information—but I promise to keep this more fun than a pap smear. To start things off, and in honor of GYT (Get Yourself Tested) Month, I’m going to tackle a few questions about STDs. To learn more about GYT, go to

Do you have a question that you’d like to see answered in this column? Send them to me at Your name will be kept anonymous!

I heard HPV is the most common STD. What does it do?

HPV stands for human papillomavirus, and it is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, about half of men and more than three out of four women will have HPV at some point in their lives, but most people don’t know that they have it. The majority of these infections will clear on their own in about a year, but some of them won’t.

HPV is caused by a virus, and there are many different strains: some don’t have any symptoms, some cause genital warts and a few cause cellular changes that may lead to cancer.

Because not all types of HPV have visible symptoms, it’s important to get tested. For women, this means getting a regular pap test, which involves taking a sample of cells from the cervix to make sure they are normal. For guys, this means visually checking their genitals regularly, and having any unusual bumps checked out by a health care provider.

The good news is that HPV can be prevented. Abstinence (not engaging in any kind of sexual activity) is the best way to prevent HPV. Since HPV is passed through skin to skin contact, a condom won’t always protect against it – but using them will reduce your risk.

There are also several vaccines that protect against the majority of cancer- and genital wart-causing strains of HPV. It’s recommended that people between the ages of 12-26 get vaccinated.

How soon after unprotected sex can I know if I’ve contracted an STD like HIV?

STDs, like any disease or infection, have a period of time from when you are exposed to when it will actually show up on a test; this is usually called the window period. This window period varies for each STD, but none of them will show up the morning after. So even if you’re freaked out, don’t run out immediately to get tested.

HIV can take anywhere from two weeks to six months after exposure to show up on a test, although most people who test positive do so within the first three months. Usually someone tested within that window period will be encouraged to return at the end of the full six months for a retest.

Many STDs don’t have noticeable symptoms, so it’s important to get tested regularly (every six to twelve months) if you are sexually active. Fortunately, most STD tests are completely painless—as easy as providing a urine sample or cheek swab, and you can often have your results within twenty minutes.

Can my insurance companies raise my premium if they see that I’ve gotten an HIV test?

For people who are sexually active, getting tested regularly is important for peace of mind, as well as early detection and treatment. However, many people have concerns about confidentiality and stigma when it comes to STD screenings.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an insurance company shouldn’t penalize you for seeking a routine test like an HIV screening. Insurance companies have guidelines about what they will and won’t cover, but receiving HIV or STD screenings shouldn’t have any impact on the cost of your coverage.

More than half of us will have a STD at some point in our lives, so it’s important to get tested, get treatment (if appropriate), and dispel the shame that too often surrounds sexual health. Are you due for a STD screening? Schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider today or visit to make an appointment at a Planned Parenthood health center near you.