Getting tested is the only way to find out if you have HIV. HIV tests are recommended for all adults. HIV tests are quick, painless, and sometimes free.
How do I know if I have HIV?
The only way to know for sure if you have HIV is to get tested. You can’t tell if you have HIV just by the way you feel, because most people who get HIV don’t have any symptoms for years.
Testing is a good idea if you’ve had unprotected sex or if your partner tests positive for HIV. You should also get tested if you’ve shared needles with anybody (for shooting drugs, piercings, or tattoos). If you’re pregnant, get tested for HIV at your first prenatal visit.
Luckily, HIV testing is pretty easy and painless. The best part about getting tested for HIV? Once you get it over with, it can really put your mind at ease. And if you DO have HIV, it’s best to find out right away so you can take medication to help you stay healthy and lower your chances of spreading HIV to others.
How do HIV tests work?
When you get HIV, your immune system makes antibodies that try to fight off the infection. The most common type of HIV test looks for these antibodies in your blood or cells from your cheek.
It usually takes about 3 months for your body to make enough antibodies to show up on an HIV test, but it could be even longer. This time after you first get infected but won’t test positive for HIV is called the “window period.” If you get tested during this time, you can get a negative result even if you do actually have HIV. You also have the biggest chance of giving HIV to other people during the window period.
What kind of HIV tests are there?
Rapid HIV tests give you results in about 20 minutes. Other tests take longer because they need to be sent out to a lab. HIV tests are usually painless — you just gently rub the inside of your cheek with a soft swab. Sometimes you’ll give a blood sample for testing.
You can test yourself for HIV using an at-home HIV testing kit. With the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test, you swab your gums and test the sample yourself. You get results in 20 minutes. With the Home Access HIV-1 Test, you prick your finger to get a small amount of blood. You mail your blood sample to a lab, and get your results in about a week. At-home tests are totally anonymous — you're the only person who will know the results. And both types of tests help connect you with counselors who can give you support and advice about treatment if you test positive.
If a rapid HIV test at a clinic or a home test shows that you have HIV, get a follow-up test to make sure the results are correct.
Where can I go for HIV testing?
You can get tested for HIV and other STDs at your doctor’s office, a community health clinic, the health department, or your local Planned Parenthood health center. You might want to get your HIV test at a place that also has HIV counseling (like Planned Parenthood).
You can either get an “anonymous" or "confidential” HIV test, depending on the laws in the state that you live in. “Confidential" testing means your name is on the test, and the results go in your medical records. Your doctors and insurance company may also see the results. If you test positive, your results are sent to your local health department so they know the rates of HIV in your area. But your results are protected by privacy laws, so nobody else can see them without your permission.
"Anonymous" testing means your name isn’t on the test. You’ll get an ID number that you’ll use to find out your results. Your results won’t go in your medical records, and they won’t be sent to your insurance company or the health department — you’re the only one who will know them.
STD testing, including HIV testing, isn’t usually automatically part of your regular checkup or gynecologist exam — you have to ask for it directly. Be honest with your nurse or doctor so they can help you figure out what tests are best for you. Don’t be embarrassed: your doctor is there to help, not to judge. (And if your doctor does judge you for asking for an HIV test, maybe it’s time to find a new one.)
The idea of getting tested may seem scary, but try not to freak out. STD testing is part of being responsible and taking care of your health. HIV tests are quick and usually painless. And if you do have HIV, it’s better to know as soon as possible so you can start treatment.