How Long Should You Wait for STI Testing?

Unfortunately, the question of when to get tested for a sexually transmitted infection (STI) isn't easy to answer. To start with, STI testing isn't perfect. Even if you have theoretically waited long enough for a test to work, you could still end up with a false positive (your results show you have an infection when you actually don't) or a false negative (your results show you do not have an infection when you actually do).

You also need to account for the fact that not all STI tests work in the same way. Some tests look directly for the presence of a disease-causing virus or microorganism (pathogen). Others look for your body's immune response to the infection.

A chlamydia screening smear test
Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

Pathogen and Antibody Tests

In theory, tests that look directly for the pathogen should become positive faster. That's because pathogens are there from the start of the infection. However, these tests often require samples from an infected location on the body to work. That's not always easy to come by.

For example, herpes swabs are notoriously sensitive to timing. They only work during a very short window of active infection. The accuracy and ease of these tests usually depend on the type of disease being tested for. New tools have allowed healthcare providers to develop reliable urine testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea. Other infections, such as human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes, may be more difficult to detect without the presence of an obvious sore or lesion.

In contrast, blood tests that look for antibodies don't require a healthcare provider to know where to sample. What they do require is time to turn positive. Your body's immune system must first react to the infection and then produce detectable levels of antibodies for these tests to work.

Different types of antibodies peak at different times after infection. In some cases, this fact can be used to determine how long you've been infected with an STI. However, the delayed response also affects how long it takes for a test to become reasonably predictive of infection.

Waiting Times and Test Result Accuracy

Answering how long it would take for someone to definitively test positive or negative on an STI test after a sexual encounter without physical protection requires knowing a number of things, including:

  • What STIs the person had been exposed to
  • What tests were being used to detect the infection

There are also other unclear factors that could play a role. Unfortunately, this makes it impossible to give someone a definitive answer on how long they should wait to go get a test.

It's a difficult question even from a research standpoint. How do you ethically and practically expose someone to an STI and then repeatedly test them to determine how long it takes for them to test positive? Because of this, there is little to no solid data about how long after an exposure people should wait to get tested for many STIs.

Common practice suggests that people could go in for basic testing for bacterial STIs as soon as two to three weeks after an exposure. (They could, and should, go even sooner if they have symptoms.) However, they would need to be retested again at least three to six months out in order to feel relatively certain of their results.

At a month out, some tests for chlamydia and gonorrhea would be reasonably accurate. Still, tests for other diseases such as herpes and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) take longer to become conclusive.

If you had an encounter that likely resulted in an infection, for most STIs, six months is a pretty conclusive follow-up period to be tested. That doesn't mean you don't want to get tested sooner. It just tells you when you might want to go back to a standard screening schedule.

Getting Results

Once you get tested, you have to wait for results. There are some rapid STI tests available, like a chlamydia test that can show results in 30 minutes. Others can give results in an hour or less. However, not every clinic stocks rapid tests, and they're not available for every STI. If you're interested in rapid tests, your best bet is an STI clinic. You can call in advance to ask what rapid testing is available.

Without that option, STI test results may come back anywhere between 48 hours and two weeks.

To avoid confusion, ask your healthcare provider whether they'll call you with any results or only with a positive result.

STI Testing Doesn't Replace Discussion

People often wonder whether they are obligated to tell current and future partners that they might have been exposed to an STI. No matter if the question is modified by "What if we only had oral sex?" or "What if it didn't last long?" the answer is usually the same: Yes. These are discussions that everybody should be having before they have sex.

Most people don't come to sexual relationships completely inexperienced. Therefore, talks about testing and safe sex aren't just appropriate but smart.

Still, sometimes the discussion can be difficult. That's why it's always a good idea to practice safe sex, particularly until you're reasonably certain of your test results.

Condoms may not be perfect, but latex ones still offer protection against STIs.

Infidelity and STI Disclosure

The question of disclosure is certainly more complicated for people who have been with a partner outside a committed relationship. However, most people would be willing to forgive an infidelity that didn't unknowingly expose them to STIs than one that did. When someone discloses an infidelity, they at least give their partner a chance to minimize their emotional and physical risk.

People may use STI transmission as a tool of manipulation. However, passing on an STI isn't a healthy way to make a partner stay with you or to convince them to overlook an infidelity. Fortunately, once most people get over the initial shock and the stigma of an STI diagnosis, they realize that fear isn't love.

Most people, including experts, would consider intentionally infecting a partner with an STI to keep them around as a form of abuse.

Moving on and dating with STIs may not always be easy. However, it's better than staying with a partner who is emotionally or physically abusive.

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5 Sources
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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