Most At-Home STI Tests Fail to Meet Young People's Needs

Randy Dotinga

May 06, 2022

The wide majority of at-home sexually transmitted infection testing kits in the United States appear to be limited to use by adults, a new study finds, and many have limitations that make them less than ideal for young people to use.

While at-home kits do allow more access to STI testing, "we need to create programs that are specific for youth because they have extra needs," said lead author Saumya Sao, a research assistant at the department of gynecology & obstetrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, in an interview. "The only platform that did meet our needs was the program that we developed specifically."

The findings were released ahead of the study's scheduled presentation at the 2022 annual clinical and scientific meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (Session A117).

According to Sao, companies began to offer more at-home testing kits during the pandemic as in-person STI clinics shut down. Still, "the fact that we only found 13 self-collect mail-in STI programs shows you that this is pretty new," she said. "There are not too many companies that do it. We found a lot more platforms that allow users to place orders for testing online, but you're still required to go into a lab and actually do the testing."

The researchers gathered information about 13 programs, including the one that they developed at Johns Hopkins known as Violet. Of those, seven limited testing to adults aged 18 and up, and one didn't list an age requirement. The rest had some age requirements (such as 14 and up) or no age requirements.

The lack of full access for teens is problematic, Sao said. According to the study, "access to testing among young people is especially important because youth (ages 13-24) bear a disproportionate burden of sexually transmitted infection, accounting for 50% of cases but only 25% of the sexually active population."

Research has suggested that young people are often wary of visiting STI clinics because they fear stigma from medical professionals or worry about being seen there, Sao said.

Tests are free in only three of the programs analyzed in the new study. Among the other programs, tests for Chlamydia trachomatis and Neisseria gonorrhoeae cost $45-$179; only two accepted insurance. "These out-of-pocket costs are really high in regard to what a young person might be able to afford for testing, especially if they would need to do repeat testing between partners, or 3 months after testing positive," Sao said.

Most of the programs will link users to medical professionals if they test positive. This is a key feature, Sao said, in order to make sure young people have support.

As for location, most of the programs – including all those that offer free testing – are limited to certain states. Planned Parenthood, for example, only offers at-home STI testing in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. The program charges patients on a sliding scale, accepts insurance, and is available for ages 14 and up. It connects users who test positive to physicians.

Another free program, TakeMeHome, is restricted to 16 states. It includes an HIV panel for ages 17+ (although it doesn't have vaginal swab testing). It recommends that patients who are positive consult a doctor.

The researchers also found that some, but not all, of the programs send testing material in discreet packaging. This is important to young people because they may not want their parents to know that they're getting tested.

Some of the testing programs analyzed don't make it clear on their web sites whether their packaging is discreet, Sao said.

At Johns Hopkins, Sao has helped develop the Violet Project, which is designed to meet the needs of young people and offers free STI testing to residents of Maryland of any age for Chlamydia trachomatis, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, and Trichomonas vaginalis. Mailing packages are discreet, and physicians reach out to those who test positive. Fees are covered.

"We don't have money yet to expand beyond Maryland, but we're hopeful," she said.

In an interview, Loma Linda (Calif.) University Health maternal-fetal medicine specialist Sarah Smithson, DO, MS, praised the study and said she supports optimizing at-home testing for young people. It may be useful for youths who first get tested in a clinic but then need follow-up testing or testing of their partners, she said.

Smithson added that transportation is often a challenge for young people. At her pregnancy clinic in California's Inland Empire, she said, some patients live in remote areas and make virtual doctor visits because of the distance. STI testing is crucial for pregnant women, she said, "and this could be a game changer for them."

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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