A Practical Guide to Getting Tested for HIV
June 2008 — Health experts estimate that approximately 25% of 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 status.
What is an HIV test?
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 get tested?
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 others.
When and how can I get tested?
Most people develop detectable HIV antibodies within three months of infection, the average being 20 days. In rare cases, it can take 6-12 months. For this reason, the CDC recommends testing six 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, local health department, 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 (see sidebar).
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.
Does testing 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 these substances.
- Get screened for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Undetected STDs can cause serious health problems. It is also important to practice safe sex behaviors to avoid contracting STDs.
How can I get more information?
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.
1-800-243-7889 (TTY/deaf access)
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention