The Incubation Period of Common STIs

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STIs have different incubation periods. For some STIs, symptoms may appear in a few days. For others, it may take weeks or months. It is also possible to have an STI but have no symptoms.

Knowing how long the incubation period is for different sexually transmitted infections (STIs) may help you better recognize the signs and symptoms if you have one. Even so, it is not a sure-fire guide given that some STIs don't always cause symptoms.

This article will help you understand how long it usually takes for symptoms of an STI to show up after exposure. In some cases, it may be a lot longer than you think.

Illustrated chart of incubation periods for common STDs

Verywell

How Long Before STI Symptoms Appear?

The time between exposure to an STI and the onset of symptoms varies by the STI. It is important to remember that some people may experience asymptomatic (symptom-free) infection and still be able to infect others.

The incubation period is the length of time between when you are infected with a contagious or infectious organism like a virus or bacteria and when symptoms first appear. The incubation period is not the same thing as the window period, meaning the time between when you are infected and when a lab test is able to detect the infection.

Chlamydia

Chlamydia is an extremely common STI caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. It is readily passed through vaginal, anal, and oral sex but doesn't necessarily cause any symptoms.

The incubation period of chlamydia is roughly seven to 21 days from the time of exposure.

Chlamydia is often referred to as a “silent” infection because most people with chlamydia have no symptoms or abnormal findings during a physical exam.

Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea is another common STI caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae. The incubation period can vary by sex, in part because symptoms like painful urination and urinary discharge tend to be more apparent sooner in males than in females.

The incubation period of gonorrhea ranges from one to 14 days, with most men developing symptoms within two to five days. The incubation period in women can vary, but symptoms, if any, usually develop within 10 days of exposure.

Syphilis

Syphilis is a common STI caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum. It initially causes a painless sore (chancre) on the genitals., which may be missed if it is internalized in the vagina or rectum.

Syphilis infection occurs in stages. The initial stage, called the primary infection, is the period after exposure when symptoms may or may not occur incubation period for this stage is around three weeks but can span anywhere from 10 to 90 days.

After the primary infection clears, the infection will go into a period of latency (dormancy). This secondary latent stage can last anywhere from one to 20 years, only to be followed by the onset of new symptoms during the more serious tertiary stage of infection.

Chancroid

Chancroid is an uncommon STI caused by the Haemophilus ducreyi bacterium. Chancroid is rare in the United States and is most often seen in developing countries in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

The incubation period of chancroid is between four and 10 days but may take up to 35 days. On occasion, chancroid can cause syphilis-like sores within 24 hours if genital tissues are damaged at the time of sexual intercourse.

Trichomoniasis

Trichomoniasis is an STI caused by a one-celled parasite known as Trichomonas vaginalis. Both males and females can get trichomoniasis, but the infection is often asymptomatic (in males especially). In females, trichomoniasis may cause vaginal itchiness and discharge with a fishy smell.

The incubation period of trichomoniasis is between five and 28 days.

Scabies

Scabies is caused by a parasitic mite called Sarcoptes scabiei. The female mite burrows under the skin and lays two or three eggs per day during her one- to two-month lifespan. When the larvae hatch, they cause an itchy rash.

If you’ve never had scabies before, the incubation period may be anywhere from two to six months. If you were previously infected, symptoms may show up after one to four days.

Genital Warts

Genital warts are caused by a low-risk strain of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV generally has a very long incubation period, so it may be months or years before genital warts appear.

Not all strains of HPV cause genital warts. In fact, most are relatively harmless. Some high-risk strains cause changes in cells that can lead to cervical cancer and other cancers of the genitals, anus, or mouth.

If you are a female with genital warts, your healthcare may perform a Pap smear to see if there are any early signs of cancer. Less commonly an anal Pap smear may be performed if you have anal warts.

The HPV strains associated with genital warts generally do not cause cancer.

Genital Herpes

Genital herpes is caused by the herpes simplex virus (HSV). Many people with HSV are asymptomatic and may not even realize that they've been infected. Even so, they can pass the infection on to others.

The incubation period for the main cause of genital herpes—herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2)—is between two and 12 days, with an average of four days.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

HIV is the human immunodeficiency virus. HIV infection progresses in stages as the virus gradually depletes disease-fighting immune cells. Over time, this leaves the body vulnerable to an ever-increasing range of opportunistic infections.

The initial stage, called acute seroconversion, can cause flu-like symptoms or no symptoms at all. The incubation period for acute HIV is between two to three weeks (although symptoms can sometimes take up to three months to develop).

After the acute symptoms resolve, the virus will go into a period of latency that can last 10 to 15 years or even more. Eventually, when enough immune cells have been destroyed, the infection can progress to the most advanced stage of infection known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Without treatment, a person diagnosed with AIDS has a survival time of roughly two years.

Hepatitis B

Hepatitis B is caused by the hepatitis B virus (HBV) and can be transmitted sexually as well as by sharing needles. Hepatitis B can cause chronic liver inflammation in some people that can lead to liver damage.

Hepatitis B is often asymptomatic in the early stages. If symptoms occur, the incubation period is roughly 90 days (with a range of between 60 and 150 days).

Although many people are able to spontaneously clear the virus, the infection will persist in others, leading to a chronic infection. A small percentage will go on to develop liver cirrhosis, liver failure, or liver cancer years down the line.

Molluscum Contagiosum

Molluscum contagiosum is a type of virus that can be sexually transmitted, Symptoms include an outbreak of smooth, pearly-white bumps on the skin.

Many, but not all, cases of molluscum in adults are caused by sexual contact. The virus can also be passed through intimate, non-sexual contact or through clothing, towels, bathing sponges, and pool equipment contaminated with the virus.

The incubation period of molluscum contagious is unclear but is thought to range anywhere from seven days and six months.

How STIs Are Diagnosed

Doctors diagnose different STIs in different ways. For example, urine tests can detect gonorrhea and chlamydia, whereas blood tests detect syphilis, herpes, and HIV. Testing for other infections requires genital swabs.

Infection Test
Chlamydia Urine test or swab
Gonorrhea Urine test or swab
Syphilis Blood test
Chancroid Swab
Trichomoniasis Urine test or swab
Scabies Physical exam with a skin scrape
Genital warts Physical exam (with Pap smear if applicable)
Genital herpes Swab
HIV Blood test or oral swab
Hepatitis B Blood test
Molluscum contagiosum Physical exam

A lack of symptoms is no guarantee that you don’t have an STI. You may be infected and be able to transmit the disease to your sexual partners. That’s why there is no substitute for regular screening.

When to Get Tested

The timing of testing depends on which STI you may have been exposed to. With some STIs, a test can return an accurate diagnosis within a few weeks. Others may require you to wait for months before the test can accurately detect antibodies and other markers of infection.

The time between the first infection and when a test can reliably detect that infection is known as the window period.

While the incubation period and window period are often closely aligned, a few tests can diagnose an STI well before symptoms appear or when the infection is asymptomatic.

Testing prematurely within the window period can increase the risk of a false-negative result. This means that you have been infected even if the test says you haven't.

Here is a general overview of window periods for some of the more common STIs:

Infection Window Period
Chlamydia 1-2 weeks
Gonorrhea 1-2 weeks
Syphilis 1-3 months
Chancroid 4-10 days
Trichomoniasis 1 week to 1 month
Scabies 4-6 weeks
Genital warts No screening test
Genital herpes 1-4 months
HIV 2-6 weeks
Hepatitis B 3-6 weeks
Molluscum contagiosum No screening test

Summary

The incubation period of STIs depends on which one you were exposed to. The time from exposure to when symptoms appear can range from a few days to as long as six months.

In addition, some STIs may not cause symptoms at all. That means you may be infected but be unaware of it. That’s why regular STI testing is essential.

A Word From Verywell

Concerns about STI incubation periods aren’t limited to people who have condomless sex. While practicing safer sex can drastically reduce the risk of an STI, it isn’t foolproof.

That’s why it’s a good idea to talk about testing with new partners before you have sex.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.