Call-On-Doc Focus: What is an STD Window Period?

Published on Mar 28, 2024 | 10:57 AM

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A "window period" is a common term used for STDs to reference the time between when a person is exposed to the STD causing pathogen, bacteria, or parasite to when it can be detected on an STD testing. While early detection can help alert a patient to get treatment quickly and avoid some of the long-term risks and effects of STDs, the window period is an important bit of knowledge to understand due to the possibility of a false positive or false negative. 

What if I know my partner has an STD?

Whether your partner tells you that you might have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease or you begin to notice STD symptoms, getting treatment quickly has never been easier. Treatment for most sexually transmitted diseases does not necessarily require testing; only a quick consultation that allows a doctor to provide a prescription. 

For those that do require testing, like HIV and syphilis, there are fast-acting options that work similarly to a morning-after pill. These options are DoxyPEP for bacterial STDs, like syphilis, and HIV PEP. Both are meant to be taken or started within 72 hours after potential and are available through Call-On-Doc alongside most STD tests that we can deliver directly to your door. 

What’s the difference between window and incubation period?

The STD window period indicates the interval from exposure to when it can be identified through testing, while the incubation period spans from exposure to the onset of symptoms. The window period primarily concerns testing detection, whereas the incubation period pertains to how the infection progresses and the symptoms that develop. 

Does the STD window period differ per test?

The STD window period can vary depending on the type of test being used. Different STD tests have different sensitivities and specificities, which influence how soon after exposure they can detect an infection. For example, some tests, like nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs), can detect certain STDs (such as chlamydia and gonorrhea) within a few days to a week after exposure, making them suitable for detecting infections early in the window period. On the other hand, antibody tests may take longer to detect an infection because they rely on the body's immune response to produce detectable levels of antibodies. Therefore, it's essential to consider the specific characteristics of each test when determining the optimal time for testing after potential exposure to an STD.

What are the window periods for STDs?

STDs have different window periods due to factors like the pathogen type, transmission method, and testing technology. Viral STDs like HIV may have longer window periods because they rely on antibody production post-infection. In contrast, bacterial STDs like chlamydia and gonorrhea can be detected sooner through tests like NAATs. The individual's immune response and infection stage also play a role. For STDs spread through vaginal intercourse, common window periods are:

Chlamydia: The most common bacterial STD globally and specific to humans, the primary test for chlamydia has become the NAAT. As mentioned in The Call-On-Doc Guide to Chlamydia, NAATs not only detect the DNA and RNA of a given infection but also are relatively easy to conduct due to their capacity to examine swabs or urine samples. When it comes to chlamydia testing using a NAAT, the window period can range from five days to two weeks. Additionally, chlamydia treatment is generally offered without testing by Call-On-Doc. 

Gonorrhea: Second behind chlamydia for being the most common bacterial sexually transmitted disease, gonorrhea is most often tested using NAATs due to their effectiveness in detecting the infection. As mentioned in The Call-On-Doc Guide to Gonorrhea, this is generally conducted via swab or urine sample and is generally followed up with multiple treatment options. When using NAATs for testing, the gonorrhea window period generally ranges between two to six days. If a patient suspects their partner has an active infection or experiences symptoms, healthcare providers like Call-On-Doc offer gonorrhea treatment without or before testing. 

HPV: Currently, testing for Human papillomavirus, commonly called genital warts, is offered only to women. Additionally, due to there being so many different types of HPV, there’s not necessarily a universally agreed-upon window period for the disease outright, with testing generally only being considered for high-risk cases that could develop into conditions like cancer. Learn more about HPV by reading The Call-On-Doc Guide to Genital Warts

Herpes: The window period for genital herpes is generally not considered due to how fast the symptoms show in patients, with the time for bumps to show generally ranging from two to twelve days. As mentioned in The Call-On-Doc Guide to Herpes, these bumps then result in the blisters that make herpes so transmissible and are often used in a related diagnosis. While there is no cure, herpes treatment has proven effective in forcing the virus into dormancy. 

HIV: As discussed in Call-On-Doc Focus: When to get Tested for HIV, human immunodeficiency virus is a bit different when it comes to testing due to there being screening and confirmation tests. Screening tests are the first tests that a person would take and are not to be taken immediately. Rather, the tests become accurate weeks after exposure and become more so thereafter. The most effective HIV tests for screening include antibody tests, rapid take-home or laboratory-based, that detect HIV 23 to 90 days after infection and Antigen + Antibody Tests that detect HIV 18 to 45 days after exposure. An HIV diagnosis must include both screening and confirmatory testing before treatment can be provided. 

Mycoplasma: Mycoplasma genitalium is not only a difficult STD to notice and test for, but also one that does not have a clearly identifiable STD window period. That’s because of its slow development compared to other sexually transmitted diseases, with the Mgen-causing organism being infamous for growing slowly even when tested via NAATs. The rough range of mycoplasma genitalium’s window period is two to five weeks, with regular testing recommended if the STD is confirmed in the patient’s partner. Learn more about the condition from The Call-On-Doc Guide to Mycoplasma Genitalium

Syphilis: While once far more deadly, syphilis treatment has proven effective at curing the condition in the early stages and effectively managing it in later stages. Developing in stages, the tests for syphilis tend to include rapid plasma reagins and venereal disease research laboratory tests, both using blood for detection. Using such methods, the general window period for syphilis can be around three to six weeks, with it sometimes lasting up to 90 days in the instance spread to or from the patient is suspected. Learn more about the condition from The Call-On-Doc Guide to Syphilis

Trichomoniasis: Different from most sexually transmitted diseases, trichomoniasis is transmitted via a parasite. Being easier to treat and cure,  tests used for this condition tend to be NAATs and rapid antigen tests, generally featuring a window period between three to seven days but can extend to around thirty days in some cases. Learn more about the condition from The Call-On-Doc Guide to Trichomoniasis

Ureaplasma: Like other sexually transmitted diseases, ureaplasma can be asymptomatic for years and not show up in general testing. Most often detected via a PCR test review of a swab or urine sample, the condition can easily be cured with ureaplasma treatment and, when specifically tested for, has a suggested window period of around two weeks or fourteen days. 

How does the window period affect the accuracy of test results?

The STD window period significantly influences the accuracy of any testing conducted. During the window period, the levels of the infectious agent in the body may be too low to be reliably detected by diagnostic tests. Additionally, the window period generally takes into account a person’s immune system, which can slow down the development of an STD if a person is strong and healthy. While examples like gonorrhea and chlamydia tend to develop fast regardless, conditions like HIV may have a longer window period due to current testing methods relying on the body’s immune response to produce antibodies. 

What happens if you test negative after the window period?

If an individual tests negative for a sexually transmitted disease after the window period has passed, it typically indicates that the infection is not present at detectable levels in the body.

How often should I get tested if I'm sexually active?

For those who are sexually active, it’s generally recommended you get STD testing annually, with more frequency if you have multiple sexual partners. Fortunately, Call-On-Doc makes it easy through our lab testing services. Make getting regular testing easy and affordable by ordering your screening today!

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Wayne Hahne,

English graduate and Call-On-Doc’s medical resource guide, Wayne C. Hahne is an experienced and passionate medical education content expert. Through diligent research, provider interviews and utilizing the industry's leading resources for wellness information, it is Mr. Hahne’s personal mission to educate the general public on medical conditions with in-depth and easy-to-understand written guides.

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