The condom broke, or slipped off, or maybe you had oral sex without protection, and now you’re scared you’ve gotten an STI. The prevalence of these sticky situations is what makes discussing sexual health before getting intimate with a new partner so important. But we all know that mistakes happen, timelines can move faster than expected, and unfortunately sometimes situations aren’t fully within our control.
At this point, your panic might convince you that you must get tested right away. Once you’ve entertained the possibility of an STI it can be very difficult to get the intrusive thought out of your mind. While this fixation is completely valid, getting tested immediately might be premature. If you get tested the day after sexual contact, the infection may not result in a positive test. In order to lower your risk of a false negative, it’s important to adhere to specific STI window periods.
You may have heard of incubation periods in reference to the time you should wait before getting tested. What the term “incubation period” actually refers to is the time between being exposed to an infection, and when the infection can cause symptoms. Different STIs have different incubation periods as short as two days or as longs as 26 weeks. It is important to keep in mind, however, that over half of all STIs are asymptomatic–meaning they will never cause any symptoms. And regardless of whether or not you’re experiencing symptoms, you can still pass an STI to a partner or suffer serious long term health consequences. So if an infection never causes symptoms, how can you determine its incubation period, and when should you get tested?
This is where “STI window periods” become important. STI window periods describe the time between when a person is exposed to an infection and when a test can accurately detect whether or not they’ve been infected themselves. This window varies based on the STI as well as the test used to detect the bacteria or virus. So, how long should you wait after a sexual encounter to get tested?
Well, first we should address that if you find out that a sexual partner has an STI you should be seen by a healthcare provider immediately. Depending on the STI, a clinician may want to begin your treatment even before receiving a positive test result. If you’re unsure about a sexual partner’s status but know that there was risk of transmission, here are the windows to keep in mind:
|Herpes (HSV 2)||4-6 weeks|
|Hepatitis C||8-9 weeks|
It’s important that you abstain from any sexual contact until you’ve received your negative test results after these window periods. Otherwise you may be transmitting infections to partners. Waiting a few weeks may seem like a drag, but it’s easier than telling your partner you gave them an STI.
Check out the article “Help, It’s burning down there” to learn about additional common causes of genital discomfort. Remember that anyone experiencing symptoms should see a healthcare provider as soon as possible!