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How Do STD Tests Work?

How Do STD Tests Work?

5 minute read

It came to my attention that even though I have been tested for STDs including HIV/AIDS many times, I've always wondered, "How Do STD Tests Work?"

Most importantly, and what I was not aware of, is that when you are tested for HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases, you may produce a false-negative result.

Yes, this can be extremely nerve wracking, as just when you thought you had a clean bill of health, you may not be in the clear depending on time of exposure, testing, and your body.  Everyone’s body has a unique response to all types of infections and disease, which determine when they are identifiable through tests.  So, we took the liberty of breaking it down to explain how various STD tests work and how long it generally takes for a dependable result to be revealed.

First let’s get familiar with antibodies and antibody tests.  Antibodies are large Y-shaped infection fighting proteins produced by B-cells in your immune system that identify bacterial or viral infections (antigens).  Antibodies for infectious disease can be detected by taking a sample of one’s blood, saliva, or urine.


In the case of testing for HIV and many other infections and diseases, there is an incubation period, or what is more commonly referred to as a “window period”.

"The time frame between when you are exposed to HIV to the time you test positive for HIV antibodies can be up to 3-6 months. This period of time is called a “window period” for HIV testing. On average, you may need to wait 2 to 8 weeks from the time of possible exposure to get an accurate test result, because it takes at least that long for the immune system to develop enough HIV antibodies to be detectable."   []

Genital Herpes

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the average waiting period for Herpes is 4 days, but can range anywhere from 2 to 12 days. Herpes is an incurable disease that can be contracted through numerous ways, not limited to sexual activity, which we covered in a previous article about sharing lipstick.   It can turn up in an antibody blood test but the test cannot distinguish between a past infection or a current (new) one.

Viral cultures are said to be the best test to diagnose genital herpes, although they often can produce false-negatives.  Viral antigen detection tests are usually done in place of or in conjunction with culture tests, during which cells are scraped from a sore and looked at on a slide under a microscope, identifying possible antigens.

Chlamydia, Gonorrhea & Syphilis

Other STDs such as Chlamydia, Gonorrhea and Syphilis can be detected fairly early usually through a blood, urine, or swab sample, and are easily treated when detected early.  Chlamydia and Gonorrhea frequently post the problem of being asymptomatic, showing no symptoms.

Chlamydia’s waiting period is poorly defined because of its slow acting nature to develop, and can take weeks for noticeable symptoms to appear.  Usually it is symptomless and is known as the “silent infection”.

Gonorrhea can take as little as 2-5 days to show up, but sometimes symptoms can present themselves up to 30 days later or not at all.

Syphilis has roughly a three week waiting period before symptoms are shown in stage one, but can range from 10-90 days.


Although there are five strands of viral Hepatitis that destroy the liver, strands A, B, and C are considered to be major threats in the United States and are especially common among those engaging in promiscuous behavior with multiple sexual partners and/or intravenous drug users. A Hepatitis virus panel is a series of  blood tests performed at the same time for strands A, B, & C.

The waiting period is as follows for Hepatitis:

A - 28 day average, range 15-50 days

B - 120 day average, range 45-160 days

C - 45 day average, range 14-180 days

But not to worry, vaccinations for strands A and B are available, and most of us likely have already been vaccinated for them as an infant or child.  Development and research is currently being conducted for the vaccine of strand C.  If you are not sure if you were vaccinated, take the time to verify with your doctor that you have been inoculated.

Multiple testing options are available today, so make sure you discuss with your healthcare professional exactly what you want to be tested for and -to the best of your knowledge- your entire sexual history.  This will be super helpful in deciding what tests will yield the most reliable results and if additional tests are needed at a later date, given the waiting period for each STD.

We highly recommend that you get tested at least once a year if you are sexually active and always wear a condom.

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