We’ve all seen what early pregnancy looks like on TV and in the movies: A woman is going about her day as usual when nausea hits her out of nowhere. She stops to vomit dramatically before a look of realization passes over her face…and then she takes a pregnancy test, which immediately reflects two bold, unmistakable pink lines.
In real life? Well, it doesn’t necessarily work like that.
When I was trying to conceive, I joined a Facebook group full of other people who were attempting to build their families. Nearly every day, there was a post from someone in the group sharing an image of her pregnancy test with a question along the lines of “Is this what I think it is?” The picture would inevitably feature a pregnancy test with a very faint positive result — we’re talking, you’d have to really, really squint to see that second line. There are plenty of Reddit threads dedicated to analyzing faintly positive pregnancy tests. And many people have even broken the news of their pregnancies to their partners by asking them to check out a pregnancy test to help them figure out if there is, in fact, a second line poking through.
Sure, sometimes you’ll get that undeniable positive result, a la what you see in the movies. But often, pregnancy tests are far more challenging to decipher. But does that say anything larger about the pregnancy itself? Read on for more info.
What does a faint positive pregnancy test mean?
We’ve all heard that you can’t be “a little bit pregnant” — but sometimes, when you’re trying to interpret the results of a faintly positive pregnancy test, it kind of feels like you can.
Pregnancy tests turn positive when they detect hCG, which is the hormone produced by the placenta during pregnancy, in urine. When a pregnancy test registers a faint positive result, it can mean the concentration of the hormone is low.
“Human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, is a hormone produced by special cells that form the placenta in pregnancy, called syncytiotrophoblast cells. hCG helps thicken the uterine lining to support a growing embryo,” says Banafsheh Kashani, M.D., an OB-GYN, reproductive endocrinologist, and infertility specialist. “Healthcare providers measure hCG to not only confirm a pregnancy but to also provide details into how the pregnancy is progressing.”
Reasons for a faint positive pregnancy test
Typically, a faint positive pregnancy test is nothing to worry about, especially early on in your pregnancy, as hCG levels rise over the early weeks of pregnancy.
“A faint line on a pregnancy test usually means implantation has occurred and you are in your early stages of pregnancy,” says Dr. Kashani. “The pregnancy hormone HCG is made after implantation of the embryo, and this hormone is made slowly from the start of pregnancy. A faint positive pregnancy test indicates a very early pregnancy.”
Can your pregnancy test tell you anything about how your pregnancy is progressing?
To some degree.
If you receive a faint positive result, “you’ll want to test again within a few days or weeks to see if the line has become darker, as this is a sign that the pregnancy is progressing,” says Dr. Kashani. “However, unfortunately, it is possible to see a faint line on a pregnancy test and that line may fade or go away, in which case you may start your period shortly thereafter. This likely represents a very early miscarriage or what people refer to as a biochemical pregnancy.”
But of course, there are limitations. “At-home pregnancy tests don’t give you a specific number of your hCG levels,” says Dr. Kashani. “While they can be helpful to track and make sure the line is getting darker with time and not fading away, to better understand your hCG levels you should visit your OB-GYN who can order a blood test to confirm a pregnancy and obtain a quantitative level of hCG. [Then], you can repeat the hCG level in 48 hours and this level is expected to double. This is what allows your provider to ensure your hCG levels are trending in the right direction.”
One thing to note about hCG levels.
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The levels of the hormone don’t rise throughout your whole pregnancy — so don’t panic if you test later on and see your positive line fading. According to Dr. Kashani, hCG levels peak at 10 weeks of pregnancy, then decline for the rest of pregnancy.
If someone is nervous about faint positive results on a pregnancy test, what can they do?
“If you are nervous about a faint positive result on a pregnancy test, I would first recommend testing again [to] see if that line is getting darker or lighter. This will give you an initial predictor of how your pregnancy is continuing,” says Dr. Kashani.
But a visit to your doctor may be in order if you’re concerned. An OB/GYN can confirm your pregnancy via blood test, and make sure your numbers are moving in the right direction.
If you see a barely-there line, it’s not just a design flaw in the test itself.
According to Dr. Kashani, one common misconception is that a faint positive line on a pregnancy test means you’re not actually pregnant — that’s not true. Even the faintest whisper of a second line indicates a pregnancy — yes, even if you really have to squint to see it.
Zara Hanawalt is a freelance journalist and mom of twins. She's written for outlets like Parents, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Motherly, and many others. In her (admittedly limited!) free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, trying new restaurants, and traveling with her family.