What You Need to Know about Getting Tested for HIV

What You Need to Know about Getting Tested for HIV

Did you know that an estimated 15% of Americans with HIV are not aware that they are infected? Not surprisingly, this figure has extremely serious public health implications. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most new HIV infections can be traced back to people who do not know their HIV status. Therefore, it’s important for all sexually active people, even those who are in monogamous relationships, to get tested for HIV and to know the HIV status of their partner.

As a resource for people who are considering getting tested for HIV, amfAR offers a practical guide to the process on its website, including answers to the following frequently asked questions:


Why should I get an HIV test?

Knowing your HIV status is the most important thing you can do to protect not only your own health, but the health of others, as well. Early diagnosis is an essential step in combatting the spread of HIV and in preventing life-threatening health conditions. It’s especially important to know your HIV status if you are pregnant, as there are many precautions and medications you can take to reduce the risk of passing the infection on to your child.




Is a test the only way to tell whether I’m infected?

Yes. Getting a test is the only way to know for sure if you have HIV. If you have been infected, you may develop temporary flu-like symptoms or find that your glands are persistently swollen, or you may feel healthy and present no symptoms for a decade or more. However, you can still transmit the virus to others, no matter how healthy you may feel and appear.


What does an HIV test look for?

After entering the bloodstream, HIV starts to attack your body’s CD4 cells, which are a type of white blood cell. To fight off this infection, your immune system will produce antibodies. The typical HIV test is attempting to locate these antibodies. Some HIV tests look for antigens, as well: these are foreign substances that activate the immune system, and that are produced even before the development of antibodies. Now common in the United States, antigen/antibody tests are the recommended form of laboratory testing.


When and how can I get an HIV test?

It’s important to understand that it can take up to three months after you’ve been exposed to HIV to test positive for the virus. The period between the time of exposure and the time when an HIV test can provide a definitive result is called the “window period,” and its duration can vary from one person to another (it also depends on the type of HIV test used). If you get a negative result from an HIV test after a potential HIV exposure, it’s best to take another test after the window period is over to ensure that the result was accurate. Remember, it is not possible for an HIV test to detect the virus immediately after infection. If you suspect that you have been exposed to HIV within the last 72 hours, contact your health care provider right away to talk about post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

To get an HIV test, talking to your health care provider is often the first step. They can provide you with a test and confirm its window period and may also talk with you about your risk factors, general health, and next steps to take if the test returns a positive result. To find out about other testing sites and locations, you can contact the CDC at 1-800-CDC-INFO or visit gettested.cdc.gov. If you prefer, you can also purchase a home testing kit online or at a pharmacy.


What types of HIV tests are there?

Today, several different HIV tests are available for use. The most common ones test blood and oral fluid. When a rapid HIV test is used, results can be available within an hour. Modern HIV tests have very high levels of accuracy. However, in the event of a positive HIV result, a follow-up test must be conducted before an infection can be diagnosed.




Does an HIV-negative test result for me mean that my partner is also HIV-negative?

Your HIV test reveals your HIV status and yours alone. An HIV test can never tell you if your partner is infected, and a test should never be used as a substitute for protecting yourself from HIV.


If I test positive for HIV, does that mean I have AIDS?

An HIV-positive test result means that you have been infected with HIV, but this is not the same as having AIDS. It can take many years for HIV to progress to AIDS. An AIDS diagnosis cannot be made for a person with an HIV-positive result unless they have experienced at least one AIDS-related infection or their CD4 immune cell quotient has fallen below a certain level.