December 2012 — Health experts estimate that
approximately one in five Americans infected with HIV do not know their status
— a figure that has profound public health implications. In fact, evidence
suggests that most new infections stem from people who are unaware of their HIV
status, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
All sexually active people, particularly those who have had
multiple sex partners — gay or straight— should get tested. Even people in
monogamous relationships should be tested and should know their partner’s
What is an HIV
When HIV enters the bloodstream, it begins to
attack certain white blood cells known as CD4 cells. The immune system then
produces antibodies to fight off infection. When you take an HIV test, doctors
are actually looking for the presence of these antibodies, which confirm that
HIV infection has occurred.
Why should I
Early diagnosis is crucial in preventing
life-threatening health conditions and combating the spread of HIV. Knowing
your status will allow you to take steps to protect your health and the health
of others. If you know you are HIV-positive and pregnant, you can take
medications and other precautions—such as refraining from breast-feeding— to
significantly reduce the risk of infecting your child.
Am I at risk?
Anyone can become infected with HIV, but you
are at greater risk if you:
- Have ever shared
injection drug needles and syringes or “works.”
- Have ever had
unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex with multiple sex partners, anonymous
partners, or men who have sex with men.
- Have ever been
diagnosed with or treated for hepatitis, tuberculosis (TB), or a sexually
transmitted disease such as syphilis.
- Exchanged sex for
drugs or money.
- Received a blood
transfusion or clotting factor between 1978 and 1985.
- Have had unprotected
sex with someone who would answer yes to any of the above questions.
If you are unsure of a sexual partner’s
risk-taking behavior or if you or they have had many sex partners, you are at
greater risk of infection.
The CDC recommends that all pregnant women be
screened for HIV. In the U.S., mother-to-child HIV transmission is highly
preventable if the mother begins treatment before or during childbirth.
Can’t I tell
whether I’m infected without getting tested?
No. The only way to know for sure is to be
tested. Within a few weeks after infection with HIV, some people may develop
temporary flu-like symptoms or persistent swollen glands, but many people feel
healthy for a decade, and some for even more. Unfortunately, HIV- infected
people who look and feel perfectly healthy can still transmit the virus to
When and how
can I get tested?
Most people develop detectable HIV antibodies
within three months of infection, the average being 25 days. In rare cases, it
can take up to 6 months. For this reason, the CDC recommends testing three months
after the last possible exposure, i.e, unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex,
or sharing needles. You can be tested at your doctor’s office, community health
center, hospital, and sites specifically set up to provide HIV testing. All HIV
test results are confidential and can only be shared with people authorized to
see your medical records. Anonymous testing sites allow you to get tested
without giving your name.
It is important to seek testing at a place
that also provides counseling about HIV and AIDS. Counselors can answer
questions about behavior that may put you at risk of contracting or
transmitting HIV and suggest ways you can protect yourself and others in the
future. They can also help you understand the meaning of the test results and
refer you to local AIDS-related resources.
The CDC provides a national database of HIV testing sites.
What types of
HIV tests are available?
Several HIV antibody tests are used today. The
most common are blood and oral fluid tests. Unlike most testing methods, which
can take anywhere from three days to several weeks, rapid HIV testing offers
results in 20 minutes to an hour. Although these tests are very accurate, all
positive HIV results must be confirmed with a follow-up test before a final
diagnosis of infection can be made.
If I test HIV negative,
does that mean that my partner is HIV negative also?
No. Your HIV test result only reveals your HIV
status. Getting tested for HIV should not be seen as a method to find out if
your partner is infected, and testing should never take the place of protecting
yourself from HIV.
positive for HIV mean I have AIDS?
No. HIV tests simply reveal the presence of
antibodies that the body produces in an effort to fight off infection with HIV.
If someone has HIV antibodies, that means they have been infected with the
virus. HIV can take many years to progress to AIDS, and HIV patients aren’t
diagnosed with AIDS unless they have experienced one or more AIDS-related
infections, or the number of CD4 immune cells has fallen below a certain level.
What if I test
positive for HIV?
If you test positive for HIV, you can take
immediate steps to protect your health. Early medical treatment and a healthy
lifestyle can help you stay well. Prompt medical care may delay the onset of
AIDS and prevent some life-threatening conditions. There are a number of
important steps you can take immediately to protect your health:
- See a doctor, even if
you do not feel sick. Find a doctor who has experience treating HIV. There are
now many drugs to treat HIV infection and help you maintain your health.
- Have a tuberculosis
test done. Undetected TB can cause serious illnesses, but it can be
successfully treated if caught early.
- Smoking cigarettes,
drinking too much alcohol, or using illegal drugs can weaken your immune
system. There are programs available that can help you reduce or stop using
- Get screened for
sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Undetected STIs can cause serious
health problems. It is also important to practice safe sex behaviors to avoid
How can I get
The CDC’s National AIDS Hotline can answer
questions about HIV and AIDS in a prompt and confidential manner. Staff can
offer a wide variety of written materials and put you in touch with
organizations in your area that deal with HIV and AIDS.
1-888-232-6348 (TTY/deaf access)
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and