You meet someone new, and in a moment of passion, you give into temptation and have unprotected sex. You soon find out that your new partner has an STD.
Millions of people contract STDs every year; some from new partners, and others from partners who have affairs. The thought of being exposed to an STD can be troubling, but testing can help you get the treatment you need.
The question is: When will the infection show up on tests?
How Long after Contracting an STD is it Detectable?
STD detection windows vary, depending on the illness. The timing of your test will depend on the STD incubation period, which can be a few weeks or more for some infections.
If you get tested too soon, you may get a false-negative result. If the test comes back negative, you may assume that you’re off the hook – until symptoms appear later on. False-negative results delay treatment, which can cause unwanted complications and side effects.
How Long Does It Take for an STD to Show?
If getting tested too early can skew your results, when should you checked out? The answer depends on what type of STD you’ve been exposed to.
Here’s when to get tested for the most common STDs:
Chlamydia – 1 to 5 Days
The incubation period for chlamydia is 1-5 days, so you’ll want to wait at least a day after exposure to get tested. Ideally, you’ll wait about a week to make sure the test picks up the infection.
Symptoms for this sexually transmitted infection won’t appear for one to three weeks, if ever. Some people never experience any symptoms until the disease has progressed to later stages. Waiting too long to get treated can lead to complications.
When symptoms do appear, they usually take the form of:
Discharge (out of the penis or vagina)
Pelvic pain for females
Bleeding in between periods or after sex
Testicular pain for males
About 70% of women and 50% of men don’t experience symptoms, so it’s important to get tested as soon as possible if you’ve been exposed to chlamydia.
Failure to get treated for this STD can lead to complications, which might include:
Testicular Inflammation: Chlamydia can spread to the epididymis and testicles, which can cause pain and swelling. Antibiotics can be used to treating the swelling. Failure to get treated can lead to infertility.
SARA (Sexually Acquired Reactive Arthritis): Chlamydia is one of the most common causes of SARA, which causes the joints, urethra or eyes to become inflamed. There is no cure for SARA, but most people recover within a few months.
Pregnancy Issues: Pregnant women can pass chlamydia to their babies if the infection isn’t treated. Babies who are exposed to the STD may develop pneumonia and an eye infection. Untreated chlamydia also increases the risk of premature birth, miscarriage, low birth weight or even stillbirth.
PID (Pelvic Inflammatory Disease): PID can develop if chlamydia spreads to the ovaries, uterus or fallopian tubes. This disease can increase the risk of an ectopic pregnancy, lead to infertility or cause chronic pelvic pain. PID can be treated with antibiotics.
Gonorrhea – 2 to 6 Days
Gonorrhea has an incubation period of 2-6 days, so you may want to wait a week before getting tested.
Symptoms of this illness usually appear within 10 days of exposure, but some people are asymptomatic until the disease progresses to later stages.
Some people may experience:
Yellow or green discharge from the penis or vagina
About 50% of women and 10% of men experience no symptoms, so getting tested is crucial.
If gonorrhea is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the body and cause more serious issues, including:
Infection of the Testicles and Prostate: Untreated gonorrhea can lead to infection of the testicles and prostate. In rare cases, this can reduce infertility.
PID: About 10-20% of women with untreated gonorrhea will develop PID.
Pregnancy Complications: During pregnancy, this STD can cause premature labor, miscarriage and the baby to be born with conjunctivitis.
Genital Herpes – 4 to 6 Weeks
Genital herpes has a longer incubation period, which can last 4-6 weeks. Getting tested before the incubation period ends will give you inaccurate test results.
While the incubation period is quite long for this STD, many people start experiencing symptoms early on. Signs of genital herpes can appear within four to seven days of exposure, but many people won’t have symptoms for months or years.
Signs may include:
Blisters around the genital area
Itching or tingling in the genitals
Genital herpes is a chronic condition, and the virus will remain in your body for the rest of your life. Because this is a virus, it can reactivate at any time causing recurring infections.
Some people experience four to five recurring infections within the first few years of being infected. Over time, the virus reactivates less frequently and outbreaks become less severe.
In some cases, genital herpes can cause complications during pregnancy. If you contracted the disease before getting pregnant, the risk to your baby is very low because your body will produce antibodies that protect your child.
However, the risk of passing the virus to the baby is significantly higher if you develop this STD during the third trimester of your pregnancy.
While rare, neonatal herpes (when the baby catches the virus around the time of birth) is serious and can be fatal in some cases. Neonatal herpes can affect the central nervous system (spinal cord, brain); eyes, mouth and skin; or multiple organs.
Syphilis – 3 to 6 Weeks
Syphilis has an average incubation period of 3-6 weeks, so you will need to wait some time before getting tested.
Symptoms of this STD may appear after two to three weeks after exposure. Signs of syphilis include:
Blotchy red rash
Painful sores or ulcers in the genitals
If left untreated, syphilis can be fatal, although that is rare in today’s world. Symptoms appear during the first and second stages, which include a rash and flu-like symptoms.
Once in the latent stage, the disease is still detectable, but it no longer produces symptoms. The infection becomes dormant, but causes damage to your organs. If the condition is not treated in the latent stage, it will progress to the terminal tertiary stage about 10-30 years later.
At the tertiary stage, sufferers may experience:
Loss of motor skills
Internal organ damage
In the final stage of syphilis, most people descend into a state of mental illness and die.
Syphilis is easily cured with antibiotics, so it’s important to get tested as soon as the incubation period ends. The earlier you treat the disease, the fewer complications you’re likely to experience.
HIV – 1 to 3 Months
The incubation period for HIV can be months, which can make it difficult to find the best time for testing.
That said, some people have symptoms early on – within two to six weeks. These include:
A red rash on the body
Not everyone will experience these symptoms, but if they do occur, they usually last about a week.
HIV is a virus, and there is no cure. If no steps are taken to manage the virus, it may progress to AIDS.
STD Early Detection
Knowing the STD timeline for incubation periods is half the battle in knowing when to get tested.
But there are early detection tests for many infections, including HIV, that can help ensure you get treatment as soon as possible.
Getting tested as soon as the incubation period ends is crucial in avoiding complications and treating your infection early on. Retesting is also recommended after treatment to ensure that the infection is out of your system.
Here’s when to retest:
Chlamydia: 2 weeks after treatment
Syphilis: 2 weeks after treatment
Gonorrhea: 2 weeks after treatment
Genital Herpes: Not necessary (virus)
HIV: After a positive result to confirm the presence of the virus
How Often Should You Get Tested?
The CDC offers the following recommendations for STD testing:
Annually for chlamydia, gonorrhea
At least once for HIV
Annually for HIV if you practice unprotected sex or share needles
Women who are pregnant should be tested for HIV, syphilis and hepatitis B early on in the pregnancy to protect both mom and the baby.
If you’re a sexually active adult who regularly engages in unsafe sex, you may want to get tested more often (every 3-6 months).