Your Guide to Incubation, Latency and Window Periods

by Drew Lovell

Not all STIs are quick to make themselves known. Some can take days, months, or even years to show up.

This raises two immediate concerns. First, you could unknowingly be carrying an STI. Second, you could (unintentionally) pass that STI to others.

It’s not just incubation periods you have to be aware of, but latency periods and window periods, too.

At Yoxly, we understand these terms can be confusing. Playing the ‘waiting game’ can be incredibly frustrating—not to mention anxiety inducing.

That’s why we’re giving you the lowdown on incubation periods, latency periods, and window periods.

What do they mean? Why are they important? When’s the right  time to test for STIs after having unprotected sex?

Need some clarity? The wait is over...

What is an Incubation Period?

Incubation periods consider when infective symptoms start.

In scientific terms, an incubation period is the time it takes an infectious organism to multiply and reach a stage where symptoms manifest in the host.

Put simply, an incubation period is the time between your exposure to an STI, and the development of your first STI symptom.

Incubation periods are usually presented as ranges of time, and can vary according to the type of infection.

For example, you could be exposed to chickenpox, but not know that you have it until 10 - 21 days later, when that first dreaded spot rears its ugly head!

During the pandemic, more people than ever have been searching the term incubation period, with respect to COVID-19. The average incubation period for COVID-19 is between 1-11 days. The maximum incubation period for COVID-19 is 14 days, which is why Public Health England (PHE) recommends that people suspected of having COVID-19 self-isolate for a minimum of 14 days.

Yoxly will soon offer COVID-19 antibody at-home test kits, which you can order here. If taken correctly, COVID-19 antibody tests can indicate whether or not you’ve had COVID-19 in the past, but they cannot diagnose a current or very recent COVID-19 infection.

The Incubation Period for Common STIs:

According to the NHS, here are the incubation periods of five common STIs:

  • Chlamydia: Incubation period: 7-21 days

  • Gonorrhoea: Incubation period: 1-14 days

  • Herpes: Incubation period: 4-7 days

  • Trichomoniasis: Incubation period: 5-28 days

  • HIV: Incubation period: 2-6 weeks

What is a Latency Period?

Latency periods consider when you become infectious (i.e. capable of passing an infection on to others).

So, if the incubation period is the time it takes for symptoms of an STI to develop (after being exposed), what is a latency period?

In epidemiology, a latency period is the time between host exposure to an infectious agent, and the onset of host infectiousness (e.g. when the host is capable of passing the infection to others).

Put simply, a latency period is the time between your exposure to an STI, and when you can pass that infection on to other people.(i.e. when you can transmit that STI to others). 

Latency periods are presented as ranges of time and can vary according to the type of infection. For any infection, the latency period can be shorter or longer than the incubation period. 

Latent STIs can cause long-term health problems, including pregnancy complications, cervical cancer, organ damage, and dementia—amongst many other issues.

What is a Window Period?

Window periods consider when a test can detect an infection.

In scientific terms, a window period is the time between host exposure to an infectious agent, and when a test can accurately detect the presence or absence of that infectious agent.

Simply put, a window period is the time between your exposure to an STI, and when your STI will show up on a test.

Window periods are presented as ranges of time and can vary according to the type of infection and the type of test.

So while ordering an STI test might seem like the obvious thing to do after having unprotected sex, the test result could be inaccurate if you take the test too early. The good news is that we know the window periods for these common STIs:

The Window Period for Common STIs:

  • Chlamydia: Window period: 5-14 days

  • Gonorrhoea: Window period: 5-14 days

  • Herpes: Window period: 6-12 weeks

  • Syphilis: Window period: 4-12 weeks

  • HIV: Window period: 21-45 days

When can you have sex again?

You should refrain from sexual contact with others whilst waiting for your test results. This is true even if you’re having sex with the same person/people. Ideally, you and your partner(s) would be tested (and treated) for STIs at the same time, to minimise the risk of passing infections back and forth.

If you test positive for an STI, you should complete appropriate treatment. A medical professional will be able to advise you on how long you need to abstain from sexual contact, both during and after treatment. Some STIs require retesting after treatment, and so you  should refrain from sexual activity until a second test comes back clear. If you test positive for an STI, you should always seek medical advice about when it is safe to resume sexual activity. 

Incubation periods, latency periods, and window periods are like the party guests that everyone hates; they show up at different times and totally take over! 

Now that you know the differences between all three, hopefully it will be easier to keep on top of your sexual health.

Yoxly offers a simple and effective solution, where you can order an STI testing kit and have it delivered straight to your home. We’ve got basic kits, comprehensive kits, and everything in between.

Concerned about your sexual health? You can find more information about specific STIs on Yoxly’s website. Or put your mind at ease and order your kit today.

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Drew Lovell has created content for various tech and entertainment companies, including Disney Online. His latest role was for a leading learning tech company, which saw him as the head of YouTube, chief blogger and social media expert. Drew has also written comedy for BBC Radio Four, released x2 podcast series, and x3 novels.

Yoxly's Awesome Contributors

Yoxly's Awesome Contributors (YACs) are a diverse group of individuals who are passionate about public health, and committed to furthering our mission. Yoxly provides a platform where a variety of sexual health topics (some more awkward than others!) can be explored, in an informative and non-judgmental way. If you'd like to become one of Yoxly's Awesome Contributors, contact us!

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