Half of sexually active adults under 25 will have at least one sexually transmitted infection (STI) in their lifetime.
In fact, they’re the most commonly reported type of infection in the United States.
Some infections may not cause any symptoms, and others may not cause symptoms for several weeks.
That’s why sexual health screening is crucial to a healthy and active life—and why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends STD testing for all sexually active adults and adolescents.
Because each infection is different, it’s important to get tested in order to catch—and treat—any possible infection early.
If you’re worried that you may have contracted an STI, I’ll tell you more about how long these infections take to show up in tests in this article.
I’ll talk about the incubation period for some common STDs, how soon you can get tested, and provide some testing information.
I’ll also talk about whether these infections can remain dormant, and give you some more information on why it’s important to be tested regularly.
Finally, I’ll tell you when you should see a doctor or healthcare provider.
The “incubation period” of an infection is the period of time between contracting an infection, and when you might start to experience symptoms.
For example, experts believe the incubation period for COVID-19 is between 2-14 days (though a person may be contagious for 48 hours before symptom onset).
When it comes to STDs, incubation periods can vary widely depending on the infection:
- Chlamydia: Not all people who contract chlamydia develop symptoms. But for those who do, the incubation period is usually between 7-21 days.
- Gonorrhea: Most men experience symptoms when infected with gonorrhea, usually within 1-14 days. Not all women experience symptoms of gonorrhea, but when they do, it’s usually within 10 days of exposure.
- Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV): Like chlamydia and gonorrhea, not all people with HIV develop symptoms. For some who do, they may experience flu-like symptoms within 2-4 weeks after infection.
- Syphilis: The incubation period for syphilis will vary depending on the stage of the infection. With primary syphilis, symptoms typically appear within 3 weeks of exposure. In some cases they can take 90 days to appear.
How Soon Can You Get Tested?
Like an infection’s incubation period, the window in which you can get tested for an STD or STI will vary depending on the type of infection you’re testing for.
Using the same examples as above, here are some examples of varying STD testing windows:
- Chlamydia and gonorrhea: Using nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs), the general testing window for both chlamydia and gonorrhea ranges between 5 days and 2 weeks. If you’ve had a known exposure, get tested as soon as possible. If you test within five days of possible exposure and receive a negative result, plan on retesting within one week.
- HIV: Depending on the type of diagnostic test being used, the testing window can range from 10-90 days.
- Syphilis: Most tests can detect syphilis within one month after exposure.
Understanding the testing information for each type of infection can help you make informed decisions about your STD risk and testing options:
|Infection||Type||Incubation period||Testing window||Test type||Retest after treatment?|
|Gonorrhea||Bacterial||1-14 days||5 days-2 weeks||Urine, blood, or swab||2 weeks|
|Chlamydia||Bacterial||7-21 days||5 days-2 weeks||Urine, blood, or swab||3 months|
|Genital Herpes||Viral||2-12 days||1-4 months||Blood or culture||No, lifelong virus|
|Genital Warts||Viral||Undefined (can take weeks, months, or years for symptoms to appear)||Weeks after initial infection||Pelvic exam, pap smear, colposcopy, anal exam, or biopsy||Within 1 year|
|Syphilis||Bacterial||3 weeks-20 years||1 month||Blood||2 weeks|
|HIV||Viral||2-4 weeks||10-90 days||Antigen/Antibody blood||No, lifelong virus|
|Hepatitis||Viral||1-26 weeks||Antibody blood||No, lifelong virus|
|Trichomoniasis||Parasitic||5-28 days||1 week-1 month||Pelvic exam, urine test, and swab of rectum, penis, or vagina||3 months|
Gonorrhea is highly contagious and can be acquired through unprotected vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
Symptoms can include:
- Vaginal itching, burning, swelling, or redness
- Discharge of the penis or vagina that’s different from normal color
- Painful or swollen testicles
- Painful or burning sensation when urinating
- Frequent urination
- Bleeding between periods or irregular, heavy periods
- Pain during sex
- Abdominal or pelvic pain
When left untreated, gonorrhea can lead to chronic pelvic infections, pain, and infertility.
But when caught, it can be treated with antibiotics, usually an injection of ceftriaxone, together with an oral dose of either azithromycin (Zithromax) or doxycycline (Monodox, Vibramycin).
If you’re still experiencing symptoms after finishing treatment, talk to your provider.
Chlamydia, also called chalmydia trachomatis, is the most commonly reported sexually transmitted disease (STD) in the U.S., with roughly 2.9 million new cases annually.
Many people infected with chlamydia don’t experience any symptoms, which is why it often goes untreated.
When symptoms do appear, they can include:
- Vaginal or penile discharge
- Burning sensation while urinating
- Painful sex
- Abdominal pain
- Testicular pain, tenderness, and swelling
Thankfully, chlamydia can be detected with an STD test and successfully treated with antibiotics like azithromycin or doxycycline.
If you’re prescribed antibiotics for chlamydia—or any other bacterial infection—it is important to finish the entire course of treatment prescribed, even if you feel better.
Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus-2 (HSV-2), and is primarily spread through sexual contact.
It can cause sores or lesions on the genitals and anal regions, though many who are infected are asymptomatic.
While there is no cure or vaccine for the virus, there are medications and treatments that may help treat breakouts and active symptoms.
Genital warts are a highly-contagious type of STD that cause small bumps or growths to form around the genitals and rectum.
The HPV virus, the most common STI, causes genital warts.
Though genital warts can go away on their own, there are also ways to remove them with the help of a healthcare professional.
Syphilis is a life-threatening bacterial STI that spreads through sexual contact.
When left untreated, the virus can cause serious health problems, and even death.
The stages of the infection are:
- Primary syphilis: 2-12 weeks after exposure a smooth, red sore develops on the genitals or mouth, which can go away on its own in a few weeks or months. Because the sore doesn’t usually cause pain, many people do not realize it’s even there.
- Secondary syphilis: 1-6 months after infection, a bumpy, rough rash develops on the body (usually on the palms of the hands or soles of the feet). Flu-like symptoms may also develop.
- Latent syphilis: If left untreated, the infection becomes latent and can damage the heart, bones, nerves, and organs.
- Tertiary (late) syphilis: About a third of people progress to the late phase, when a serious range of health problems can occur.
Detecting and treating syphilis early is essential to preventing long-term or severe consequences.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is an STD that can cause acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
Not everyone living with HIV will get AIDS.
HIV can be spread through sharing needles with an infected person, through childbirth if the mother is infected and untreated, or (rarely) a blood transfusion.
Some people with HIV develop flu-like symptoms.
But not everyone with HIV experiences symptoms, which is why getting tested is important.
Though there is no cure, there are several treatments that can help manage HIV.
Thanks to these treatments, many people living with HIV today have what’s called ‘undetectable HIV’, meaning they cannot pass it on to a sexual partner.
There are 40 strains of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that can be sexually transmitted through vaginal, anal, and oral sex, as well as skin-to-skin contact.
HPV is most common in younger people, but any sexually active person who hasn’t been vaccinated against it can contract HPV.
Vaccination is important for stopping the spread of HPV, especially the strain that can cause cervical cancer.
Many strains of HPV cause no symptoms.
Some strains can cause warts on the genitals, mouth, or throat, or changes in cells that can lead to cancer.
Early detection and treatment are key to avoiding long-term health consequences as a result of infection.
It is important to adhere to pap testing that your doctor recommends.
Pap testing is a screening tool to catch early cervical cancer changes due to HPV.
Viral hepatitis is inflammation of the liver caused by infection.
There are several types of hepatitis, but hepatitis B infections are most commonly passed via sexual activity. Hepatitis C can also be transmitted via sexual activity, though this is more rare.
Hepatitis D only causes symptoms in people with a hepatitis B infection.
Hepatitis A can be passed via sexual activity, but is more commonly transmitted through fecal-oral contact.
Many people with hepatitis B or C don’t experience symptoms.
If symptoms do appear they can include:
- Dark yellow urine
- Gray- or clay-colored stools
- Joint pain
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Yellowish eyes and skin
The best way to prevent hepatitis B is to get the hepatitis B vaccine.
Though there is no vaccine for hepatitis C, certain antiviral medications can help to treat the disease.
Trichomoniasis is a very common STD caused by a small parasite called Trichomonas vaginalis (TV).
Trichomoniasis is spread through genital contact and is more common in people with vaginas than people with penises.
In people with vaginas, symptoms can include:
- Redness, burning, itching, and soreness of the vagina
- Vaginal discharge
- A change in normal discharge amount or consistency
- Pain while urinating or having sex
People with penises can also experience genital discharge, painful urination, or itching and irritation around their genitals.
Only about 30% of people with trichomoniasis have symptoms.
But it’s still possible to infect someone else, even if you’re asymptomatic.
Can STDs Lie Dormant?
Yes, some STDs, including genital herpes, chlamydia, HIV, and hepatitis C can lie dormant or inactive in the body.
During this time, you will be unlikely to experience symptoms.
In some cases, STDs can lie dormant in the body throughout a person’s life.
The Importance of Testing & Early Treatment
When you’re sexually active, regular testing is crucial to catching STDs early and treating them before they can cause more severe complications.
When to See a Doctor
If you’re sexually active, talk to a provider about your sexual history, safe sex practices, and STD screening recommendations.
If you’re experiencing any new or troublesome symptoms, reach out to your provider for care.
How K Health Can Help
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Frequently Asked Questions
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Current Concepts in Bacterial Sexually Transmitted Diseases. (2011).
The Stages of HIV Infection. (2021).
Sexual Transmission and Viral Hepatitis. (2020).
Time periods of interest. HIV, STDs, Viral Hepatitis. (2018).
Which STD Tests Should I Get? (2021).
Hepatitis B. (2016).
Hepatitis C. (2016).