Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) testing determines whether you're infected with HIV, a virus that weakens your immune system and can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
Some HIV tests check for antibodies that your immune system produces in reaction to HIV infection. Other HIV tests look for evidence of the virus itself. Rapid tests can produce results within 20 minutes.
Why it's done
HIV testing is essential for slowing the spread of HIV infection. Many people are unaware that they're infected with HIV, so they may be less likely to take precautions to help prevent spreading the virus to others. Early diagnosis often results in earlier treatment with drugs that may delay the progression to AIDS.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all individuals ages 13 to 64 years be tested for HIV. This can be done during visits with a health care provider or through community HIV testing centers.
HIV testing is particularly important for pregnant women because they can pass the virus to their babies during pregnancy or delivery or through breast-feeding. Taking medication that combats HIV during pregnancy and delivery greatly reduces the risk that you'll transmit the virus to your baby.
How often should you be tested?
The CDC recommends at least one HIV test for all people ages 13 to 64 years. Yearly testing is recommended if you're at higher risk of infection. The CDC recommends that sexually active gay and bisexual men consider testing every three to six months.
Consider HIV testing yearly and before having sex with a new partner if you:
- Have had unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex with more than one sexual partner or with an anonymous partner since your last screening
- Are a man who has sex with men
- Use intravenous (IV) drugs, including steroids, hormones or silicone
- Have been diagnosed with tuberculosis or a sexually transmitted infection (STI), such as hepatitis or syphilis
- Exchange sex for money or drugs
- Have had unprotected sex with someone who falls into any of the above categories
Also consider getting tested if you:
- Have been sexually assaulted
- Are pregnant or planning to get pregnant
How you prepare
No special preparations are necessary for HIV testing. You may need to call your doctor to schedule an appointment. Some public health clinics may allow you to simply walk in for HIV testing.
What you can expect
HIV is usually diagnosed by testing your blood or a sample of cells taken with a swab from inside your cheek for the presence of antibodies to the virus.
Some HIV tests aren't accurate immediately after infection because it takes time for your body to produce antibodies to the virus. It can take up to three to 12 weeks for someone to make enough antibodies for an antibody test to detect HIV infection.
Regardless of the type of screening test used, a positive result will require follow-up testing to establish an HIV diagnosis. If you test positive for HIV on both the initial and follow-up testing, it means you are HIV-positive. It usually takes a few days to a few weeks to get results of an HIV test, although some rapid HIV tests can produce results in about 20 minutes.
Rapid HIV testing
Several rapid tests offer highly accurate information within as little as 20 minutes. These tests look for antibodies to HIV using a sample of your blood, drawn from a vein or a finger prick, or fluids collected on a treated pad that is rubbed on your upper and lower gums. A positive reaction on a rapid test requires a confirming blood test.
Home HIV testing
Home testing involves two options:
- Mailing a blood sample to a testing center and calling in for your results
- Collecting an oral fluid sample at home and using a kit to test it yourself
Both methods ensure anonymity and offer confidential counseling and referral to follow-up testing sites if your test results are positive.
Early-detection HIV testing
Some tests can detect HIV infection earlier, before antibodies are detectable in standard HIV testing. These early-detection tests evaluate your blood for genetic material from the virus or for proteins that develop within the first few weeks after infection.
Tests that detect HIV infection before you've developed antibodies to the virus may cost more than standard HIV testing and may not be as widely available. You will also still need standard antibody testing later to confirm results because false-positives and false-negatives are possible.
Negative HIV test results
A negative test result from HIV testing may mean one of two things: You don't have HIV, or it's too soon yet to tell.
If you were only recently exposed to HIV, you could test negative for HIV antibodies because your body hasn't had time to create them yet. You may want to be retested for HIV antibodies in a few months or opt for one of the early-detection tests.
Positive HIV test results
Although there's no cure for HIV/AIDS, treatment has come a long way in the past few decades, offering extended and improved quality of life for many. If HIV is well-treated, infected people can have a near-normal life expectancy. Early treatment can help you stay well and delay the onset of AIDS. Tell your partners if you test positive for HIV because they will need to be evaluated and possibly treated, as well.