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Q. How long does it take to get test results for STIs?

Joan Garrity says: The answer depends on several factors:  what STI (sexually transmitted infection) is being tested for, how long a person has had an infection, and where the test is performed.  Many reproductive health, family planning and health department clinics conduct tests and immediately analyze results for gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia – especially for men. Some STIs can be more difficult to recognize in women, who may show no visible symptoms. A clinician may want to confirm a positive result with a blood test, which will take longer to analyze. For example, in the absence of a visible sore or lesion, Herpes is best diagnosed with a blood test.  In some cases, clinicians will treat for a suspected STI if the patient’s symptoms suggest it may be present, without waiting for test results.

Vaginal samples can be tested for gonorrhea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis immediately after exposure. Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C and syphilis may take up to 6 weeks to show positive results. Antibodies to HIV — which is what most HIV tests look for — can take up to 3 months to be detected by tests.  HIV tests can be run in about 20 minutes, using rapid testing technology. A result that appears to show the presence of antibodies to HIV is called a reactive or preliminary positive result. A blood draw must always be done to confirm whether someone is truly infected.

When considering sex with a partner, remember to not only ask whether a prospective partner has been tested, but also whether that person has been tested since contact with their most recent partner. Our FAQ Condom Conversation offers helpful suggestions for that conversation.

Herpes may show a positive result in 1-2 weeks, although results may not be fully confirmed until 6 weeks.  Herpes can be confusing because of the distinction between Herpes Type I (oral) and Herpes Type II (genital). Type I, commonly presenting as “cold sores” on the lips, can be transmitted to the genitals during oral sex. And, Herpes Type II can appear on the lips following exposure through oral sex. Even in the absence of active Herpes lesions, a person may shed cells and be able to transmit the virus to a partner. If you test positive for Type II, your doctor may recommend daily suppressive therapy to limit the shedding of the virus.

A very important note:  while many public clinics, like health departments or places such as Planned Parenthood, do STI testing as a part of routine care, many private doctors do not. And your doctor may assume you’re not having sex.  Lots of people assume their doctor is testing them for every STI, but if you don’t specifically ask to be tested, you probably won’t be!  Talking to your doctor about STIs may be embarrassing, but it can be life saving. For tips on how to have the conversation, read our FAQs on How to Talk with Your Doctor about Sex as well as Six Basic Facts Seniors Need to Know about STIs.

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