Sexually transmitted disease concept art for STD incubation period

STD incubation period: what you need to know

Medically reviewed on March 15, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


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Whether you’ve had an encounter with someone potentially infected with an STD or you’re currently experiencing possible symptoms, it’s crucial that you seek a high-quality STD test. But when should you get tested?

One critical aspect of disease testing is the incubation period, or the amount of time between your first exposure to an infectious person and the onset of symptoms—seen or unseen [1]. If you get tested too early, your test may not detect chemical development of your suspected infection. If you test too late, you may never know that you had an infection at all.

But the STD incubation period for some of the most common infections varies. In this article, we’ll help you decide when to get tested based on your suspected STD symptoms.

The importance of testing

STDs are incredibly common and are contracted during sexual activity—the CDC estimates that one in five people had an STD in 2018 [2]. But, in order to prevent increasing infections, it’s critical that you seek STD testing if you suspect you have been exposed.

Why is testing so important?

  • It can decrease the potential spread of infection. If you confirm that you’re contagious, you’re more likely to take precautions to prevent spreading the infection to someone else.
  • You’re more likely to receive proper treatment. If you have an undiagnosed STD, you and your healthcare provider won’t know if you need treatment—or which treatment you should receive. For life-threatening STDs like HIV, accurate diagnoses and appropriate treatment are crucial to long-term health.

If you suspect that you have symptoms of an STD, you should seek a test to decrease the likelihood of transmission, get proper care, and improve your outcomes if you’re infected again. It's also important to understand the signs of STD in men and women to keep an eye out for them after sexual activity.

STD incubation periods for 7 common diseases

Testing for a sexually transmitted disease is crucial, but how do you know when you should get tested? Let’s explore the incubation periods of seven common STDs to help you seek care on an appropriate timeline.

HIV

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is an STD that can be potentially fatal if left untreated. Luckily, medical advancements like Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) can significantly decrease your likelihood of contracting an infection and improve your outcomes if you’re exposed.

Symptoms of acute HIV—the earliest stage of HIV infection—can develop just a few days after exposure to the virus [3], but an incubation period of about 14 days is typical for common symptoms like fever, headache, diarrhea, rash, muscle pain, and/or lack of appetite [4].

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is another common STD that can cause serious health issues—like infertility, pelvic pain, and ectopic pregnancy—if left untreated [5]. It’s the most commonly reported STD in the US, and the CDC estimated that there were four million cases in 2018.

The incubation period for chlamydia is 7–21 days for symptomatic infections [6].

But, not all people infected with chlamydia experience symptoms, which can complicate your testing timeline—and your potential incubation period.

If you don’t develop symptoms, you may discover that you have a chlamydia infection in one of the following ways:

  • You test positive for the disease during routine STD testing (which is highly recommended for people with multiple or non-monogamous sex partners).
  • Approximately one to three weeks after having unprotected sex with a new partner, that partner develops symptoms and receives a positive test.
  • Your sexual partner’s partner receives a positive result that motivates you to seek a test, and you receive positive results.

As always, if you suspect that you may have chlamydia, you should seek chlamydia testing as soon as possible to prevent infecting others.

Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is the second most reported STD in the US—after chlamydia—but, like chlamydia, the disease may not present symptoms, resulting in unreported cases [7]. You can contract gonorrhea via vaginal, anal, or oral sex, but since it’s spread via mucus membrane contact, you or your partner must ejaculate in order to spread or receive the infection.

The incubation period for gonorrhea is estimated to range from 1–14 days for symptomatic infections [8]. Cisgender men and people with penises are more likely to develop symptoms near the beginning of this incubation period, but cisgender women and people with vaginas typically develop symptoms closer to the end of the period.

But, even if you don’t have symptoms, you could still be infected. You’re likely to discover your positive results via the same scenarios as you would in asymptomatic chlamydia cases (detailed in the section above). At-home gonorrhea testing can be a convenient way to check whether you are infected.

Hepatitis C

Hepatitis C (commonly shortened to Hep C) is a viral infection that impacts the liver [9]. While the disease can be transmitted via sex with an infected partner, you can also contract Hep C via:

  • Needle-sharing with infected people
  • Unsanitary health care practices (which are uncommon in the US)
  • Unregulated tattooing and piercing
  • Childbirth (if the birthing person has the disease)
  • Blood transfusions and organ transplants
  • Sharing personal items that may come into contact with blood, like razors

Experts estimate that the incubation period for Hep C is 2–12 weeks for symptomatic patients [10].

While the incubation period is quite long, and infected people may not develop symptoms at all, you can prevent and detect the disease as early as possible by:

  • Regularly seeking STD treatment if you or your sexual partners aren’t monogamous
  • Getting tested after sharing injection drug supplies or personal items like razors
  • Testing for Hep C throughout your pregnancy if you continue to have unprotected sex
  • Visiting a healthcare provider if you suspect an infected tattoo or piercing

Syphilis

Syphilis is an STD that can remain in your body for decades if left untreated [11]. Experts divide syphilis into four stages, each of which has its own incubation period [12]:

  • Primary syphilis, which typically presents symptoms in ten to ninety days
  • Secondary syphilis, which can develop four to eight weeks after a primary infection
  • Tertiary syphilis, which can present symptoms one to twenty years after exposure
  • Latent syphilis, which doesn’t have symptoms, but can remain for twenty years or more

Syphilis nearly always presents symptoms in patients, and primary syphilis is the easiest to identify—patients present with small, round, painless sores, which spread the infection to others.

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis is a common parasitic STD affecting millions of people every year [13]. The disease is spread from infected people to uninfected people via sexual contact between the genitals. But, while it’s commonly spread from penises to vaginas, vice versa, and from vagina to vagina, the parasite is unlikely to infect the hands, mouth, or anus.

While infections are frequently asymptomatic—approximately 30% of people show symptoms, most of whom are older cisgender women or people with vaginas—the incubation period is typically 5-28 days. Luckily, trichomoniasis is treatable and curable with a single dose of antibiotic medication.

Like other STDs, you may not develop symptoms, but you can still detect and treat the disease by getting regular STD tests, staying up-to-date with your healthcare provider, and touching base with your partner during the incubation period in case they develop symptoms.

Genital herpes

Genital herpes is a very common STD caused by two strains of the herpes simplex virus (HSV)—Types 1 and 2 [14]. Why is genital herpes so common?

  • You can spread herpes via skin-to-skin contact with an infected area, even if you use a condom or abstain from penetrative sex.
  • Infected people can spread herpes via saliva exchange during kissing, oral sex, or sharing drinks.
  • While infected people are most likely to spread the disease while they have symptoms—genital warts and cold sores—they can also transmit the disease while they’re asymptomatic.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a cure or guaranteed prevention against HSV 1 or 2, and the incubation period for the onset of symptoms is unknown. But, you can prevent the disease by asking your partners about their sexual history and STD status and regularly self-examining.

Make notes of any herpes symptoms you may experience, as they can be similar to other conditions. Ingrown hair vs herpes, for example, can have similar signs to confuse them with each other.

Everlywell: meeting your STD testing needs at home

The incubation periods for seven of the most common STDs range from one day to decades, making it difficult to decide when to get an STD test if you suspect an infection. Seeking care following initial infection from sexual intercourse is important because some STDs may not present symptoms.

But, prevention can be the best medicine—one of the best ways to monitor your sexual health is to regularly seek STD testing.

Everlywell is bringing one of the best prevention tools—a test for the seven common STDs above—right to your home. With discreet shipping and quick results, you can stay on top of your sexual health without even having to leave the house. And, if you test positive for any of the diseases in our panel, we can put you in touch with our network of healthcare providers to seek treatment. And if you’re wondering how much it costs to get testing for STDs, our at-home testing is affordable so you can prioritize your health.

With Everlywell, testing for STDs has never been easier. With routine testing and quick action if you detect symptoms, you can take action to protect your sexual health one test at a time.

How long does it take for trichomoniasis to show?

What are early signs of HIV in men and women?

Syphilis vs. Herpes: How to Tell The Difference


References

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Appendices. URL. Accessed March 15, 2022.

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sexually Transmitted Infections Prevalence, Incidence, and Cost Estimates in the United States. URL. Accessed March 15, 2022.

3. North Dakota Department of Health. Time Periods of Interest: HIV, STDs, Viral Hepatitis. URL. Accessed March 15, 2022.

4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chlamydia – CDC Fact Sheet. URL. Accessed March 15, 2022.

5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gonorrhea – CDC Fact Sheet. URL. Accessed March 15, 2022.

6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hepatitis C. URL. Accessed March 15, 2022.

7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Syphilis. URL. Accessed March 15, 2022.

8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Trichomoniasis – CDC Fact Sheet. URL. Accessed March 15, 2022.

9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital Herpes – CDC Fact Sheet. URL. Accessed March 15, 2022.

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