The Window Period for STD Testing

The window period can sort of be thought of as an STD test waiting period. After you are exposed to a disease and become infected, you won’t test positive right away. Instead, there is generally a length of time before you will test positive for the disease. That period is known as the window period or the STD testing window. It’s different from the incubation period, which is the time that passes between being exposed to a disease and starting to experience symptoms.

Chlamydia screening smear test
Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

How long it takes to test positive for a disease such as an STD depends on a number of factors. Things affecting the length of the STD testing window include:

  1. What exactly the test is looking for. Some tests look for the pathogen that causes the disease. Other tests look for your immune response to the pathogen. In general, the window period is shorter for the first type of test.
  2. The specific test that is being done. For example, a nucleic-acid amplification test (NAAT) that looks directly for the organism would usually be able to detect an infection more quickly than an antibody-based test that needs to wait for an immune response. Nucleic-acid amplification can also find lower quantities of an organism than direct testing. Direct testing options include things like bacterial or viral culture.
  3. The health of your immune system and whether you have been exposed to a similar infection before. These factors affect how quickly you will make antibodies after infection.

Understanding that there’s an STD testing window, where results are not accurate, is important. It means that, if you are concerned that you might have been exposed to a particular STD, you need to talk to your healthcare provider. It is very important to discuss when that exposure might have happened. Then your practitioner will be able to give you a general idea of whether or not you have passed the window period for STD testing. If not, they may tell you that it would be better to wait and get tested (or retested) after the window period.

Testing while you are still inside the window period could lead to inconsistent test results. It could also cause a misleadingly false negative test. This is why STD screening may not provide an accurate reflection of your health status when you have had unprotected sex relatively recently. It takes a while before tests to become accurate. Unfortunately, that means that you just have to be careful while you wait.

Examples

Someone may have been exposed to HIV and has had a negative result on an antibody test, which has a window period of about 23 to 90 days after an exposure. They might then get rested with NAAT, which has a window period of about 10 to 33 days.

If you think you have had a recent HIV exposure, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Consistently using barrier methods during sex can protect your partners. Talking to your healthcare provider, and scheduling appropriate testing, can protect you. After all, early HIV treatment with antiretroviral drugs (treatment as prevention) can help keep you and your partner(s) safe.

2 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.
  1. Taylor D, Durigon M, Davis H, et al. Probability of a false-negative HIV antibody test result during the window period: a tool for pre- and post-test counselling. Int J STD AIDS. 2015;26(4):215-24. doi:10.1177/0956462414542987

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Types of HIV tests.

Additional Reading

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.