What does a faint line on a pregnancy test mean?

If a faint positive pregnancy test has you confused, we've got expert advice on how to find out for sure.

So you’ve peed on the stick of a home pregnancy test, and the line that comes up is so faint you have to squint to see it. What does it mean? Does a faint line on a pregnancy test mean you’re pregnant or not?

According to Yolanda Kirkham, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Women’s College Hospital and St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto, testing too early could be one reason you get a faint positive pregnancy test. “There’s that old saying, ‘You can’t be a little bit pregnant’—but you can, and that’s what happens when you have a faint line,” she explains. What the test is measuring is how much of the pregnancy hormone beta hCG is present in your urine. The amount of this hormone doubles every two to three days until it stabilizes between 13 and 16 weeks of pregnancy.

In the very early days of a pregnancy, a test done later in the day may also produce a faint line because the hormone is more diluted by your fluid intake. And while modern tests can tell you if you’re pregnant as little as 10 days after fertilization—which is even before you miss a period, since a you ovulate 14 days before your period begins—Kirkham recommends waiting until seven to 10 days after a missed period to test, because many pregnancies don’t continue past the first several days. “When I see these commercials where they say, ‘Test and know as soon as you’re pregnant,’ I actually think it’s too early. You may lose it in a few days and just be really upset. There’s no need to test really soon. You’ll know if your period comes or not,” she says.

A faint line may also indicate what’s known as a chemical pregnancy, which is when you are no longer pregnant, but there is still enough beta hCG in your urine for a positive test. Kirkham says the raised hormone levels could last for weeks after a miscarriage. So, if you do get a faint line, Kirkham recommends waiting two or three days, then testing again. If it’s still faint, she suggests going to your family doctor for a blood test, which can measure the specific amount of beta hCG, to check if the pregnancy is progressing as it should.

If the faint line persists, your doctor may also order an ultrasound to date the pregnancy and rule out an ectopic pregnancy (where the fertilized egg attaches itself to the inside of a fallopian tube, rather than the uterine lining).

Knowing all this, should you just use a digital test to avoid all the confusion? Though digital tests, which offer a “yes” or “no” rather than a line, remove the possibility for ambiguity that comes with a faint line, they might give a “no” result when you are in the early days of a pregnancy because of the low levels of beta hCG in your urine. So, even if you get a “no,” test again if your period does not come on time.

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