While it’s true that not all sexually transmitted infections (STIs) show immediate symptoms, if and when they do, don’t delay: Visit a clinic or health center as soon as you suspect one, and request a test.
Frustratingly, some STIs don’t present symptoms at all. These are difficult to self-diagnose, but a simple STD test can confirm whether or not you have one. For those infections that do present symptoms, they may not show up for months or even years. For this reason, it’s best to err on the side of caution and get tested regularly, even if you haven’t recently been sexually active.
And believe it or not, there are actually optimal times to get tested that will yield more accurate results so you can catch and treat an STI sooner. For example, if you engaged in sex with a person infected with chlamydia, the best time to be tested is roughly two weeks after the activity, as that’s approximately how long the infection takes to incubate in your system. In other words, the infection is at its peak at this point, and it will “light up” during a test.
But what about other STIs? How do their incubation periods affect test times?
We thought you might ask. Here’s a breakdown of STIs, their incubation periods, and the best time to get tested (and treated) for each:
- Hepatitis B (or HBV): Hepatitis B is a serious infection of the liver, which can be contracted through bodily fluids like semen, blood, and saliva. Those who contract the virus will either experience the acute or chronic type. Acute HBV will often go away on its own through rest, lots of fluids, and a quick bout of antiviral medication; chronic HBV requires life-long management/treatment, which is intended to reduce the risk of liver disease and keep infected partners from passing the virus to others.If someone contracts HBV, symptoms typically show up between 90 and 120 days (though the time frame can span anywhere from 45 days to 160 days). This is considered the incubation period and is the optimal time to get tested for the STI. Hepatitis B symptoms can persist for a few weeks to six months, and they include yellowing of the skin (jaundice), chronic fatigue, fever, loss of appetite, light-colored stools, and stomach discomfort. Here’s the good news: A safe, effective vaccine exists to protect against the virus. While there is no cure for HBV, treatment options like antiviral medications do exist; these are typically part of a long-term regimen to help keep the disease dormant.
- Human papilloma virus (HPV): HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, and it’s very treatable — especially if you catch it during its incubation period, which ranges between two and eight months since contraction. Dozens of HPV strains exist, but only certain types have genital warts as a symptom; these are typically harmless. If you contract a strain that presents warts, they will show up roughly two to three months after you’ve been infected.However, upward of 30 percent of genital warts will regress and never come back, though recurrence of warts is still common. While there is no cure for the human papilloma virus, it’s preventable through a vaccine. Additionally, antiviral medication can help reduce or resolve associated warts.
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV): This is one of the more serious infections on this list, as it is a life-long disease that attacks a person’s immune system and unfortunately has no cure. HIV goes through various stages, starting with an acute phase, a latent phase and, ultimately, total immune deficiency defined as AIDS. The acute phase encompasses the first several months after HIV is contracted. A person enters the latent phase around the three-year mark, and it can last upward of 10 years.For people who have just been infected or suspect they might be, the best time to get tested is during HIV’s initial incubation period, which begins around 14 days. Every person is different, as are the HIV symptoms they may experience. If and when symptoms arise, they can resemble the flu bug. While there is no cure for the virus, antiviral drugs can help a person live a longer, more quality life.
- Chlamydia: As mentioned before, the optimal time to get tested for this infection is 14 days after sexual activity involving an infected partner. However, you can technically be tested as early as 48 hours after sex. Still, you’ll receive more reliable, surefire results at the two-week mark, mainly because the infection is fully incubated by this time. If you think you may be experiencing chlamydia symptoms and test positive for chlamydia, the best time to be treated is immediately after you discover your results. The good news? Most chlamydia cases can be cured by proper antibiotics.
- Gonorrhea: Gonorrhea is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection; it’s contracted through unprotected vaginal, oral, or anal sex. It has one of the fastest incubation periods on this list, boasting just two to five days. Still, it may take upward of 30 days before gonorrhea symptoms actually occur. That said, many people present no symptoms, so it’s easy to pass the disease to other partners without knowing it. However, if symptoms do occur, the include painful urination and abnormal genital discharge. If gonorrhea is contracted orally, the infection may cause a sore throat.The best time to be treated for this STI is as soon as possible. In other words, after you’ve received positive test results, consult your doctor immediately about proper treatment, which typically involves antibiotics.
- Syphilis: This infection, often referred to as “The Great Pretender,” unfortunately mimics several other ailments. Thus, it’s hard to discern whether you’ve contracted the disease, so a test is warranted. The incubation period for syphilis is 21 days (or three weeks). Typically, syphilis symptoms begin with painful sores (either on the genitalia or mouth region, depending on type of sexual activity), and they eventually move into a rash, small bumps, or ulcers. General flu-like symptoms are also common. Syphilis is characterized by two stages: primary and secondary. The former involves symptoms; the latter typically doesn’t because the disease is technically lying “dormant,” though it still very much exists in the body. In this phase, it’s tempting to discontinue treatment (which is usually prescribed medication), but clinicians strongly discourage it.
If this list proves anything, it’s that every disease has its own incubation period, symptoms, and treatment. Still, knowing an STI’s incubation period is helpful in discerning the best times to get tested (and treated) today.