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HIV Testing at a Glance
- People may live longer if they know they are infected with HIV and get treatment
- A normal part of health care
- Widely available
Up to 1 out of 6 people who have HIV don't know it. Knowing if you have HIV can be essential to your sexual health. If you know you have HIV, you are more likely to get the care you need to keep from developing AIDS. If you know you don't have HIV, you can learn what you need to do to protect yourself and your partner(s) from getting it.
Testing for HIV has become faster and more convenient. Today, you have many testing options. Here are some of the most common questions we hear people ask about HIV testing. We hope you find the answers helpful.
Should I Get Tested for HIV?
HIV tests are a normal part of health care. If you think you or your partner(s) may have been exposed to HIV, talk with a health care provider about testing. Talking about what risks you've taken can help you decide whether testing is right for you.
Certain activities and behaviors increase your risk for HIV/AIDS. You may want to get an HIV test if you have
- had unprotected vaginal or anal intercourse with someone who has HIV/AIDS
- shared needles or syringes with someone who has HIV/AIDS
- had a deep puncture with a needle or surgical instrument contaminated with HIV
- gotten HIV-infected blood, semen, or vaginal secretions into open wounds or sores
It may be difficult to know for sure if your partner has taken any risks. If you have any question about your partner's HIV status, make sure you practice safer sex. Meanwhile, try to talk with your partner about whatever risks for HIV/AIDS you both may have taken. If you are both at risk, encourage your partner to get tested, too.
How Do HIV Tests Work?
When someone gets HIV, the body's immune system makes antibodies to try to fight the infection. Most HIV tests available today test for HIV antibodies. If HIV antibodies are present, it means that a person is infected with HIV.
One type of HIV test detects the virus itself. This is called an RNA test. RNA testing is more expensive and much less common than antibody tests. But RNA testing can detect HIV much earlier than antibody tests — in as little as 9 to 11 days after infection.
The Window Period
It can take up to three months after you are infected to develop antibodies. This is called the "window period." During the window period, HIV antibody tests may not show that a person has the virus. It is very important to remember that HIV can be passed to other people during the window period.
What Kinds of HIV Tests Are Available?
Currently, there are several ways to test for HIV. There are blood and oral swab HIV tests. There are also urine tests for HIV, but they are rarely used.
Most blood tests involve going to a clinic, having blood drawn, and then going back to the clinic about a week later for the results.
Many health care providers now offer rapid HIV testing. A rapid test can use an oral swab or blood from a vein or finger prick. The results take as little as 20 minutes. However, rapid test results that show a person has HIV need to be confirmed with a follow-up test.
Anonymous vs. Confidential Testing
In most states you can find clinics that offer "anonymous" or "confidential" HIV tests. It may be important to you to know the difference between those two terms when you choose a clinic for the test.
- "Confidential" testing means that your name and other identifying information is attached to your test results. The results go in your medical record and may be shared with your insurance company. Otherwise, the results are kept private, just as most medical records are.
- "Anonymous" testing means that your name is never used — just an ID number. That number is attached to your test results. You get your results by matching the number. Usually the results aren't written down — they are just told to you either over the phone or in person. With anonymous testing, your test results are not part of your medical record.
"Anonymous" testing is not available in some states, so when you schedule an appointment, ask if it is available in your state.
HIV Testing for Pregnant Women
The government recommends that all pregnant women be tested for HIV, as part of their normal prenatal care. If a woman has HIV while pregnant, she can work with her health care provider to help reduce the risk that her baby will have HIV, too. With treatment, less than 2 out of 100 babies born to women who have HIV will be infected. Without treatment, about 25 out of 100 babies will be infected.
Where Can I Get a Test for HIV?
Tests are available from Planned Parenthood health centers and most physicians, hospitals, and health clinics. Local, state, and federal health departments offer free testing. You can also buy an HIV home test kit in a drugstore or online. There are two in-home HIV tests.OraQuick is an oral swab test which gives you accurate result in tweny minutes. Home Access is a blood test you take at home and mail in to a lab and get results within a week.
It may be best to arrange to take the test where you will be able to talk with someone, ask questions, and get information before and after you are tested.
If you decide to be tested, talk about your plans with someone you trust, someone who will be there for you when you get the results — especially if it's not good news. This may not be something to keep entirely to yourself.
Take some time to think about how you will handle the results. What if you find out you have HIV? How will knowing that affect the way you take care of yourself? How will it affect your partner? What if you find out that you don't have HIV? How will you make sure you stay that way?
Learn more about HIV/AIDS.
Find Dr. Cullins' Answers to Common Sexual Health Questions
Q&A with Dr. Cullins