I frequently get questions from people who have just had unprotected sex with a new partner and are panicking because all of a sudden a strange mark has appeared in their pubic area and they want to know if they could have an STD. Below, you will find a few guidelines for how long it usually takes for STD symptoms to show up after an exposure.
It's important to keep in mind that symptoms aren't always a good measure of determining whether you or your partner has an STD. Many sexually transmitted diseases can remain asymptomatic for years. Furthermore, it is possible for someone to have no STD symptoms at all and still be contagious -- with STDs from gonorrhea and chlamydia to herpes and HIV. That's why there's no substitute for regular screening.
It's also worth noting that concerns about STD incubation periods aren't restricted to individuals who practice unprotected sex. Although practicing safer sex can drastically reduce your stress levels and your level of risk, it isn't foolproof protection. Condoms and other barriers can only reduce the risk of diseases that spread skin to skin instead of by bodily fluids -- they can't entirely prevent them. That's why it's a good idea to talk about testing and other sources of risk before you have sex.
Average Time from Exposure to Symptoms for Some Common STDs:
- Chlamydia: Although many people never have any symptoms, when symptoms do appear it is usually one to three weeks after exposure to the bacteria. Even asymptomatic patients with chlamydia can have complications, however, so it is important to be regularly screened by your physician.
- Gonorrhea: Gonorrhea is frequently asymptomatic. When symptoms do appear they may show up as early as two days after exposure, or take as long as one month.
- Syphilis: The chancre characteristic of the first stage of syphilis appears, on average, twenty one days after infection, but may appear any time between 10 to 90 days after exposure to the bacterium.
- Chancroid: Symptoms of chancroid may appear any time from one day to several weeks after infection. Most people find that lesions appear within five to seven days.
- Trichomoniasis: Although most men never have symptoms of trichomoniasis, in women symptoms usually appear between 5 to 28 days after exposure.
- Scabies: If you have never had scabies before, it may take one to two months for symptoms to appear. However, if you have previously been infected, symptoms may show up after only a couple of days.
- Genital Warts: Most people who are going to have symptomatic genital warts will experience their first outbreak within 3 months of initial infection.
- Genital Herpes: Although most people never know they're infected, if symptoms are going to occur they usually show up within two weeks of exposure to the virus. Some people will also experience a fever and full-body viral symptoms around that time
- HIV: In the majority of the infected population, HIV remains asymptomatic for years - although some infected people will get a fever and flu like symptoms around two weeks after exposure. However, as most people do not experience or recognize these symptoms, the only way to know if you have HIV is to be tested. It is important to know, however, that it may take up to six months after exposure to the HIV virus before you will test positive on an HIV antibody test, although most infected people will test positive within 3 months. A negative test, therefore, isn't a reliable indicator of your infection status if you were only exposed last week. Tests that look directly for HIV RNA, the virus' genetic material, can detect an infection earlier, but are harder to find.
- Hepatitis B: Symptoms of hepatitis B usually show up between 4 to 6 weeks after infection. However, hepatitis B is completely preventable by vaccination.
- Molloscum Contagiosum: Scientists are uncertain of the incubation period of molluscum contagiosum. Current estimates range from 2 weeks to 6 months.
The CDC Scabies Fact Sheet. http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dpd/parasites/scabies/factsht_scabies.htm
Montero et al. "Chancroid: An Update" Infect Med 19(4):174-178, 2002.