Sexually transmitted diseases can be easy to catch but difficult to diagnose right away. Why? Often, STDs don’t present symptoms for a long time — or they don’t present them at all.
When it comes to signs and symptoms, every disease is different: Some have hallmark signs that present early and often (like warts, lesions, or rashes), and others never reveal themselves; this is known as “asymptomatic.” Even more frustrating, some STDs do present symptoms, but sometimes not for months or even years. Thus, if you do contract a disease or infection, it can be near impossible to gauge how soon your STD symptoms might appear. Still, there are some ways to know early on, especially through an infection’s incubation period.
An incubation period is the amount of time it takes for an STD to show up fully in your body. For instance, the incubation period for chlamydia is two weeks after you’ve engaged in sex with an infected partner. Therefore, the best time to get tested for the STD is on or directly after that two-week period. At this point, the infection is at its peak, and it will “light up” during a test.
If you want answers sooner, however, you can technically be tested just 48 hours after you think you might have contracted chlamydia. That said, you’ll receive more reliable, accurate results at the two-week mark. Should you test positive, chlamydia can usually be treated with antibiotics.
The human papilloma virus (or HVP) is another common sexually transmitted disease, but it’s incubation period ranges from two to eight months, making it difficult to discern how soon STD symptoms might appear, if it all. In fact, it’s normal for people infected with HPV to never experience symptoms, making it even harder to confirm they have the virus (without proper testing). The good news? It’s highly treatable, especially if you catch it during its incubation period.
For people who do have symptoms that appear, they usually present as genital warts, which are typically harmless. Different strains of HPV, however, can have more nefarious symptoms, like cervical cancer in women. During testing, be sure to ask your clinician what strain you’ve contracted. Should you get infected with a strain that produces genital warts, they’ll typically show up two to three months after initial contraction. While there is no cure for HPV, it’s preventable through a vaccine. To reduce or resolve genital warts associated with the virus, a clinician will likely prescribe antiviral medication.
Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted infection that has a faster incubation period than others of its ilk, showing up fully in just two to five days. That said, it may take close to a month before these STD symptoms appear. Even so, many people who contract this bacterial infection never show symptoms; thus, it’s easy to infect other sexual partners without knowing it.
If you do test positive for gonorrhea and experience symptoms, they typically involve painful urination and genital discharge. If you’ve contracted the disease through oral sex, symptoms resemble tonsillitis/a sore throat. The good news? Treatment is possible for this disease, often through antibiotics prescribed by a clinician.
Regularly referred to as “The Great Pretender,” syphilis is another STD that is difficult to diagnose without proper testing, mainly because its symptoms mimic those of several other conditions. This infection’s incubation period is 21 days. Symptoms of this disease present as painful sores (genitally or orally, depending on how a person contracted it); these sores eventually turn into small bumps, ulcers, or a rash. Feeling like you have the flu is also a possible indicator of syphilis. Common treatment for this STD is antibiotics like penicillin.
Herpes, like the rest of its counterparts, can also be very difficult to diagnose, as it is asymptomatic in many cases. However, for people who do contract the herpes simplex virus (HSV), the No. 1 indicator is the presence of warts — genitally, rectally, or orally.
Upon first being exposed to the virus, the average incubation period for herpes is just four days (though it can take up to 12 days). Around this time, warts can appear: This is considered the first initial “outbreak.” People infected with herpes can experience several outbreaks in their lifetime, though antiviral medication can help to keep the disease “dormant” in one’s system. You should know that even if herpes isn’t necessarily “active” in your body (and you’re not presenting warts), it doesn’t mean the disease has been cured; you could still infect future sexual partners. Thus, practicing safe sex is imperative.
As if STDs aren’t frustrating enough, the fact that so many of them present symptoms months down the road or not at all certainly adds insult to injury. Knowing how soon STD symptoms appear — especially through an infection’s incubation period — helps make it easier to discern when to get tested and, ultimately, when to start treating it.