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How long can a STD stay dormant without symptoms?

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections that are passed from one person to another through sexual contact. Many STDs do not show symptoms for a period of time after the initial infection, which is referred to as a dormant or latent period. During this time, the infected person may be unaware that they have the STD and unknowingly spread it to sexual partners. The length of time an STD can remain dormant varies depending on the specific infection.

HSV-1 and HSV-2 (Herpes)

Herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1) and type 2 (HSV-2) are two of the most common STDs. HSV-1 primarily causes oral herpes, while HSV-2 primarily causes genital herpes. However, both viruses can infect either area.

After initial infection with herpes, the virus remains dormant or latent in the body’s nervous system. Most people infected with HSV will not have any visible symptoms. It is estimated that around 80% of people with HSV-2 are unaware they have the infection. Herpes can reactivate at any time, causing outbreaks of blisters and sores. Stress, illness, surgery, and other factors can trigger reactivation.

HSV can remain dormant for weeks, months, or even years before causing symptoms. On average, the dormant period after initial infection is around 6-10 days. However, herpes has been known to lay dormant for up to 20 years before reactivating and causing symptoms.

Initial herpes outbreak

The first herpes outbreak typically occurs within 1-2 weeks after infection. But it can happen anytime from 2 days to 2 weeks after infection. Symptoms may include:

  • Itching or burning before blisters appear
  • Painful blisters or open sores
  • Headache, fever, muscle aches
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the groin area

The initial herpes outbreak usually lasts 2-4 weeks. Some people may have very mild symptoms that go unnoticed. After the first outbreak, the virus becomes dormant in the body’s nerve cells.

Recurrent herpes outbreaks

After initial infection, HSV stays in the body permanently and can reactivate intermittently. Recurrent outbreaks are usually shorter and milder than the first episode. Symptoms may include:

  • Tingling, itching, or burning before blisters appear
  • Small blisters that break open and turn into sores
  • Scabbing as blisters and sores heal
  • Sore throat, fever, headache (more common with initial HSV-1 infection)

The frequency and severity of recurrent outbreaks vary. Some people rarely have outbreaks, while others experience them several times a year. On average, HSV-2 reactivates 4-6 times within the first year after infection. HSV-1 reactivates less often, about once per year.

HPV (Human Papillomavirus)

HPV is the most common STD, with over 200 strains that affect different parts of the body. At least 50% of sexually active people will get HPV at some point. HPV can cause genital warts and certain cancers. High-risk HPV strains 16 and 18 are responsible for around 70% of cervical cancers.

HPV often has no signs or symptoms. Like herpes, HPV can remain dormant for weeks, months, or even years. The dormant period between initial infection and appearance of symptoms is very variable:

  • Genital warts – weeks to months (average 2-3 months)
  • Cervical cancer – usually 10-20 years
  • Other cancers (vagina, vulva, anus, throat) – years to decades

Most HPV infections are temporary and cleared from the body within 1-2 years. However, sometimes HPV persists and continues to replicate, leading to health problems like genital warts and cancer. Regular Pap tests can detect cellular changes in the cervix before cancer develops.

HPV symptoms

Possible symptoms of HPV include:

  • Genital warts (cauliflower-like bumps on genitals or anus)
  • Abnormal Pap test
  • Cervical cancer symptoms like unusual discharge or bleeding
  • Vaginal, vulvar, anal, or throat cancers

But HPV often has no visible signs, highlighting the need for screening. Only cervical cancer is routinely screened for with Pap tests.


Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks the body’s immune system. Without treatment, it can lead to AIDS. The dormant period between HIV infection and symptoms varies greatly:

  • Window period – 2 weeks to 3 months
  • Clinical latency – symptom-free period that lasts 10 years or longer
  • AIDS – advanced stage of HIV infection

During the window period of 2 weeks to 3 months, HIV may not show up on tests despite active infection. Some people develop flu-like illness 2-4 weeks after infection. But typically, HIV causes no symptoms for years.

During clinical latency, or asymptomatic HIV, the virus replicates at very low levels. People may show no signs of illness for a decade or longer without treatment. Eventually, the immune system is severely damaged and AIDS develops.

Early HIV symptoms

Early symptoms of HIV, if they appear, are usually mild and similar to having the flu. They develop 2-4 weeks after infection and last a few days to weeks, including:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Rash
  • Night sweats
  • Muscle aches
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Fatigue
  • Headache

It’s easy to mistake these generalized symptoms for something else. That’s why testing is critical for diagnosis. After initial flu-like illness, HIV may not cause any other symptoms for years.


Chlamydia is a common bacterial STD that can infect the genitals, rectum, and throat. The dormant period for chlamydia can vary:

  • 1-5 weeks – Average incubation period
  • Weeks to months – Before symptoms appear

It’s estimated over 50% of chlamydia infections in men and 70-80% in women are asymptomatic. The bacteria can persist for months or longer without symptoms before being detected.

Chlamydia symptoms

When present, symptoms usually appear 1-3 weeks after exposure. They may include:

  • Pain or burning during urination
  • Cloudy or bloody discharge from vagina or penis
  • Pain during sexual intercourse
  • Bleeding between periods
  • Lower abdominal pain
  • Fever and chills

Without treatment, chlamydia can persist and continue to damage the reproductive system. PID, infertility, and ectopic pregnancy are possible complications.


Gonorrhea is another common bacterial STD. The incubation period and onset of symptoms for gonorrhea is similar to chlamydia:

  • Usually 1-14 days
  • Most develop symptoms within 10 days
  • Rarely dormant for weeks to months

Like chlamydia, gonorrhea is often asymptomatic. Estimates suggest 10-15% of men and over 50% of women with gonorrhea show no symptoms. Untreated infections can persist for months.

Gonorrhea symptoms

When present, symptoms of gonorrhea may include:

  • Thick, cloudy or bloody discharge from penis or vagina
  • Pain or burning when urinating
  • Swollen testicles
  • Painful bowel movements
  • Anal itching, soreness, bleeding
  • Painful sexual intercourse
  • Spotting between periods

Without treatment, gonorrhea can cause epididymitis, PID, and infertility. It can also spread to the blood and joints.


Trichomoniasis is a common parasitic STD caused by infection with Trichomonas vaginalis. Symptoms can appear:

  • 5-28 days after exposure
  • Average 7-21 days

Like other STDs, trichomoniasis is often asymptomatic. About 70-85% of people with trich don’t have symptoms. Symptomatic women may mistake mild irritation for a yeast infection. The parasite can persist for months or longer if left untreated.

Trichomoniasis symptoms

Typical symptoms of trich include:

  • Green, grey, or yellow vaginal discharge
  • Strong vaginal odor
  • Discomfort during sex and urination
  • Genital irritation and itching
  • Lower abdominal pain

Complications from untreated trichomoniasis are rare, but can include infection of the urethra and bladder. Because trich often has no symptoms, screening is important.


Syphilis is a bacterial STD that occurs in stages if not treated. The incubation period is usually:

  • 9-90 days (average 21 days)
  • Primary stage – 1-6 weeks
  • Secondary stage – 2-10 weeks
  • Latent stages – early latent (less than 1 year) or late latent (greater than 1 year)

The primary and secondary stages have obvious symptoms, while latent stages are symptomless. Latent syphilis can persist for years before progressing without antibiotic treatment.

Syphilis symptoms

Syphilis symptoms vary by stage:

  • Primary syphilis – chancre sore at infection site
  • Secondary syphilis – rash, fever, lymph node swelling, malaise, patchy hair loss
  • Latent syphilis – no symptoms
  • Late syphilis – internal organ damage and neurological symptoms

The rash and symptoms of secondary syphilis resolve even without treatment. But the bacteria remain and can lead to serious complications.

Pubic lice

Pubic lice, also known as crabs, are small parasites that infest pubic hair. The dormant period before symptoms appear is typically:

  • 1-3 weeks
  • On rare occasions, up to 2 months

Pubic lice attach to hair and can move to other coarse body hair. They feed on blood and cause very itchy rashes.

Pubic lice symptoms

Symptoms include:

  • Itching in affected areas
  • Visible nits (lice eggs) or crawling lice
  • Blue spotting on underwear or bedsheets from lice feces
  • Rash or bites on thighs, genitals, chest, armpits

Pubic lice transmission usually requires close, prolonged contact. Sharing clothes or bedding can spread pubic lice.


Scabies is a skin infestation with the Sarcoptes scabiei mite. Symptoms develop:

  • 2-6 weeks after infestation
  • Within 1-4 days if previously infected

The mites burrow into the skin, causing intense itching. Close skin contact spreads scabies from person to person. Crowded living conditions like nursing homes can lead to outbreaks.

Scabies symptoms

Scabies symptoms include:

  • Severe itching, worse at night
  • S-shaped burrow tracks on skin
  • Rash with bumps or blisters
  • Commonly affects wrist, elbow, armpit, nipple, genital area

Itching can persist for 1-2 weeks after mites are killed. Topical creams can eliminate scabies infestation.


STDs have varying dormant or latent periods before symptoms appear. This timeframe ranges from days or weeks to months or even years, depending on the infection. Many STDs cause no symptoms for long periods yet still transmit between partners. Some can persist indefinitely unless diagnosed and treated.

Regular screening is vital to detect asymptomic STDs like chlamydia, HPV, HIV, and syphilis during latent stages. Getting tested annually or whenever switching partners can prevent serious complications. Practicing safer sex by using condoms, limiting partners, and communicating openly also reduces STD risk.

Although dormancy periods vary, most common STDs become symptomatic within 1-12 weeks after infection. Herpes, HPV, HIV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia have some of the longest asymptomatic phases. Seeking prompt treatment for any STD symptoms is recommended.

STD Incubation Period Time to Symptoms
Herpes (HSV-1/HSV-2) 2 days – 2 weeks Outbreak can occur anytime
HPV (Human Papillomavirus) Weeks to months Weeks to years
HIV 2 weeks – 3 months 2 weeks – over 10 years
Chlamydia 1-5 weeks Weeks to months
Gonorrhea 1-14 days Weeks to months
Trichomoniasis 5-28 days May be asymptomatic
Syphilis 9-90 days Weeks to years
Pubic Lice 1-3 weeks 1-3 weeks
Scabies 2-6 weeks 2-6 weeks