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Get tested for HIV

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When should I get tested for HIV?

You should be tested at least once to find out your HIV status. Ask your doctor or nurse if and when you need the test again. All pregnant women should be tested for HIV. All other women should be tested at least once to find out your HIV status.

Get tested

You should be tested more often if you are at higher risk of HIV infection. You are at higher risk if you:
  • Having unprotected sex with more than one partner
  • Injecting drugs, either now or in the past
  • Having sex with someone to get money or drugs in return, or having sex with someone who has traded sex for money or drugs
  • Having sex, now or in the past, with someone who has HIV, is bisexual, or injects drugs
  • Having another sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • If you had a blood transfusion between 1978 and 1985

Remember, these are not the only ways to get HIV, and are not the only reasons to get tested. All people should know their HIV status. But many do not. About one in five people infected with HIV or AIDS in the United States do not know they have it. Many new HIV infections are caused by people unaware that they are infected. It can take between two weeks and three months after infection for HIV antibodies to be found in your blood. So, it may take up to three months for an HIV test to be positive if you were very recently infected.

It is important to know your HIV status for these reasons:

  • Many new HIV infections are caused by people unaware that they are infected.
  • HIV medicines are more effective if you start them early.
  • Starting treatment early can mean the best health for you and a longer time before you develop AIDS or other infections. Unfortunately, most people do not find out they have HIV until the disease is at advanced stages. This limits the treatment options.

There is good news. Though many Americans still don't know they have HIV, more people are getting tested than ever before. If you don't know your status, it's time to find out. Testing is quick and easy, and there are many places to get tested: HIV testing centers, health departments, hospitals, private doctors' offices, and clinics. To get tested:

  • Ask your doctor to do the test. Also, if you go to a doctor for an illness, injury, or pregnancy, he or she may offer you an HIV test.
  • Ask your doctor where to find a local HIV testing site.
  • Visit the National HIV and STD Resources website to find a local testing site.
  • Call CDC-INFO at 800-232-4636 or 888-232-6348 (TDD) to find a local testing site.
  • Call your state HIV/AIDS hotline to find a testing site.

If you test negative, you can take steps to stay that way. If you find out that you are infected with HIV, treatment can slow down the progress of the virus. If you are pregnant, you also will be able to help prevent passing HIV to your baby. You can tell your sex partners if you have HIV and protect them from getting the virus.

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Types of HIV tests

Antibody tests are often used to screen for HIV. Antibodies are things that the body makes to try to fight infections, such as HIV. Antibody tests look for antibodies to HIV, rather than the HIV itself. Antibodies to HIV often can be found between two weeks and three months after infection. Depending on the test and the place where you are tested, results come back within a few minutes to a few weeks. Ask your doctor or testing center how long you must wait.

These are some kinds of antibody tests:

  • Enzyme immunoassay (EIA) tests. These tests are the most common and give results in a day to one to two weeks.
  • Rapid tests. These are antibody tests that give you results quickly, usually in about 20 minutes. Rapid tests use blood from a vein or a finger stick or fluid from your mouth to look for antibodies to HIV. If you are HIV-negative, these are just as accurate as the EIA test. If you test HIV-positive with this test, you will need a follow-up blood test to confirm the results.
  • Home Access Test. With this antibody test, you take your blood sample at home and mail it to a lab for testing. Results are provided over the phone by a counselor. You do not have to give your name. You will receive an ID number to use when you call for the results. There is only one home test approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): Home Access HIV-1 Test System. It takes about seven days to get test results. Home Access also makes an express test with results available the day the lab receives your shipment. It takes three to seven days to get test results. You can buy this FDA-approved test online or at the drugstore. Beware: Online you can buy several HIV home test kits that are not approved by the FDA. Many of these tests give wrong results.

If you test positive with an antibody screening test, you will need a second type of test to confirm that you are infected. You must wait a few days to a few weeks for the results.

DNA and RNA tests look for parts of the HIV itself. These tests are not used as often as the antibody tests. But they are useful in some specific cases, such as testing for HIV in a newborn baby whose mother is HIV-positive and testing someone who has just become infected (who has acute HIV infection).

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Confidential versus anonymous testing

In some states, you can get tested without giving your name, if you prefer. This is called "anonymous" testing. When you get an anonymous HIV test at a testing site, they record a number or code with the test result, not your name. A counselor gives you this number at the time you take the test. Then you return to the testing site or call and give them your number or code to learn the result of your test.

If you get the test from your doctor, you can ask that the information be confidential. This means the results may be shared only with people allowed to see your medical records. Ask your doctor who will have access to your test results. With confidential testing, state health departments may also have access to your test results.

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Know your partner's HIV status

You may not know about your partner's risk of HIV infection, such as whether he has unprotected sex with many partners, has sex with other men, or uses injection drugs.

Many women avoid getting tested for HIV or don't ask their partners to be tested. The testing process can seem scary to some and too much work to others. Some women who test negative assume their partners must be HIV-negative too. But your HIV test only reveals your status, not your partner's. Many women just haven't figured out how to talk about testing with their partners.

To get your partner on board:

  • Tell your partner you want to talk about testing so that the two of you can be closer and worry less.
  • If you have not yet had sex, say that getting tested will make you feel better prepared to start having sex with your partner.
  • If you have already had sex, say that sex will be less stressful once you both know your status.

If your sexual partner has had sex with someone else, it's important that you go to the doctor and get tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Also ask your partner to get tested for HIV and other STIs. If you have changed partners, have multiple partners, or have injected drugs, then you should ask for an HIV test as well.

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Diagnosing AIDS

With the right treatments, HIV-positive people can live for decades before developing AIDS. How can you tell when HIV has progressed to AIDS? You can't. AIDS is not a diagnosis you can make yourself. Only your doctor can do that. You have developed AIDS if you are infected with HIV and:

  • Your CD4+ count drops below 200 cells per cubic millimeter. (Healthy adults have CD4 counts of 1,000 or more.)
    or
  • You have an AIDS-defining condition, which is an illness that is very unusual in someone not infected with HIV. You can read about some of these conditions in the section on opportunistic infections (OIs).

There are some things that may make it more likely that you will progress to AIDS sooner. For instance, people who have symptoms when they are first infected with HIV tend to get AIDS sooner than people who have no symptoms. There are different kinds (strains) of HIV, and each one of those may progress at a different rate. Infection with more than one strain of HIV can also lead to AIDS or other infections more quickly.

AIDS isn't the only reason that you need to keep up-to-date with visits to your HIV doctor. Today, about half of the people who die from HIV-related infections are getting infections other than AIDS. You need to keep track of your CD4 count and ward off OIs to stay healthy. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that HIV-positive women who don't have any symptoms have screenings every year. Some women may need screenings more often, so ask your doctor what is right for you.

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Content last updated July 01, 2011.

Resources last updated September 30, 2013.

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