What Does a Faint Line on a Pregnancy Test Mean?
May 27, 2021
If you’ve been trying to conceive, the two-week wait before taking a pregnancy test can be absolutely nerve-wracking. And the couple of minutes before the results? Almost unbearable. So when it comes back with (drumroll)…a faint line, it can be pretty darn confusing. You’re left wondering: Is there a line? If held up to the light just right, is there something there? Does a very faint line on a pregnancy test really count as being pregnant?
Fortunately, you don’t need to stay stuck in limbo. You’re not alone, and experts have explanations as to why a faint line on a pregnancy test might happen, how to interpret it and how to avoid it in the future.
At-home pregnancy tests read “positive” when it detects hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin), the pregnancy hormone that shows up only after the embryo implants in your uterus. So, in the overwhelming majority of cases, even a whisper of a faint second line on a pregnancy test means (hooray!) you’re pregnant. In rare circumstances, though, that may not be so, and the reasons behind the true results can vary. Here’s what could cause a faint line on a pregnancy test—and what you can do about it.
It’s very early in your pregnancy
In this scenario you’re definitely pregnant, but you’ve taken the test very early on in your pregnancy—before hCG levels are high enough to register a strong positive result (aka an unmistakable dark line). Fortunately, you won’t have to wait long before that happens: hCG levels at the start of pregnancy tend to double every two to three days. “Wait a few days and repeat a test to see if the line clarifies,” advises Mary Jane Minkin, MD, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Yale School of Medicine.
Keep in mind, testing too early can happen even if you’re using an ovulation kit or an app to keep tabs on your cycle. While they do help you determine when ovulation has occurred (so you and your partner can know when it’s time to get to work making a baby), they’re not foolproof, and cycles can vary from time to time.
The test isn’t particularly sensitive
Not all pregnancy tests) are created equal. Most tests will detect hCG in urine at levels of between 20 and 35 mIU/mL, but some can pick up even smaller traces. “With current technology, the earliest we can start detecting hCG levels in the urine is a bit over a week from fertilization, or about six days before the first day of the missed menstrual period,” Minkin explains. If you’re taking a test at that point, you might be pregnant but your pee stick isn’t designed to adequately detect such miniscule amounts of hCG and show a prominent line. Look for words such as “early result” or “early detection” on the box (and double-check the fine print)—otherwise you’ll probably have to wait until a missed period (or about two weeks after ovulation) before taking a test.
You’ve experienced early pregnancy loss
If you get a faint line on a pregnancy test and then test yourself a couple of days later, you’ll see either one of two things: a darker line that indicates you’re for sure pregnant, or an extremely faint line on the pregnancy test that’s even lighter than before. A progressively fading line can mean a very early pregnancy loss called a chemical pregnancy. As with a miscarriage, hCG levels don’t continue to rise if a pregnancy isn’t developing well, Minkin says.
It’s an ectopic pregnancy
An ectopic pregnancy means you’re pregnant, but the egg is fertilized outside of the uterus. Ninety percent of ectopic pregnancies occur in the Fallopian tube, and if left to develop, the pregnancy can cause the tube to rupture, resulting in internal bleeding. (That’s why ectopic pregnancies are treated with medication to stop the cells from growing or surgery to remove the cells altogether.) Fortunately, this is extremely rare and likely not the reason behind that very faint line on a pregnancy test.
It’s an evaporation line
Call it the pinnacle of pregnancy-test frustration. In this case, you see a faint second line on the pregnancy test (or a faint plus sign, for that matter) but it’s not at all related to the pregnancy. The difference between an evaporation line vs. a faint positive is in the timing. You’ll typically notice an evaporation line if you happen to look at your test results after the recommended time interval. It’s the ink getting caught in the urine line and appearing after the urine dries, explains Shelby Dickison, MD, a Washington University ob-gyn at the Women & Infants Center in St. Louis.
Mistaking an evaporation line for a faint positive line is a common concern, so it’s worth taking special measures to avoid it. Strategy number one? Make sure to check the test result only at the time indicated on the packaging. Then throw it away and resist the temptation to look at it again. If you pull it out of the trash again after 10 or 15 minutes, there’s a good chance you’ll see a second line, regardless of whether or not you’re actually pregnant. So resist the urge! You’re much better off retesting after a few days.
What does an evaporation line look like?
Dickison describes evaporation lines as “wavy and not distinct.” But the only surefire way to distinguish between an evaporation line and a positive test is to note when you’re checking the results. If you’re doing so after waiting for the prescribed amount of time and seeing a line, albeit a faint one, you can assume it’s a positive pregnancy test (unless it’s a rare case of early pregnancy loss or ectopic pregnancy). If you’re getting to it late and it’s outside the recommended window, then chances are it’s an evaporation line. Instead of guessing at what that line means, take a second test, perhaps the next day.
It sounds obvious, but it’s easier said than done, especially if you’ve been trying to conceive for months and are eager to see the results: To side-step the possibility of getting that dreaded faint line on a pregnancy test, make sure you’re taking the test correctly. Read the instructions, even if you’ve taken a pregnancy test in the past. Brands can differ, and designs may evolve. At the very least, give the instructions a glance each time you use it, Dickison says.
It also helps to test using the pee produced first thing in the morning. Chances are, you haven’t had any liquids for a while, so your concentration of hCG is higher at that point in time. After you take the test, check the results only at the time instructed. We know, it’s hard not to peek! But giving the test the full amount of time it requires to produce results will help you avoid that pesky faint line on your pregnancy test.
Finally, the best way to make sure you have a clear line to read on your pregnancy test is to use it only on or after the day you expect your period to start. This means roughly two weeks after ovulation. If you test too early, Dickison says, the results may be more difficult to read. While those two weeks can feel like forever, a little patience can lead to a big reward—an unmistakable dark line signalling the growth of a baby in your belly.
About the experts:
Mary Jane Minkin, MD, is a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Yale School of Medicine. She is also an ob-gyn at Yale New Haven Health in New Haven, Connecticut and has been in practice for more than 40 years. Minkin earned her medical degree from Yale University in 1975.
Shelby Dickison, MD, is an ob-gyn at the Washington University Women & Infants Center in St. Louis, as well as an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology. She earned her medical degree from the University of Missouri, Columbia, in 2011.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.
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