Who should get tested for HIV?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all Americans between the ages of 13-64 get tested for HIV as part of routine health care. More frequent testing is recommended for people of higher risk, including gay and bisexual men for which testing is suggested every 3 to 6 months given the higher prevalence.
This does not mean, however, that testing is done automatically when you see a health care provider, even if you have blood drawn. Many health care providers don’t test unless you ask to be tested. The only way to know for sure if you are being tested is if you have discussed it.
HIV testing is also recommended for all pregnant women as a part of routine prenatal care. HIV positive pregnant women can significantly reduce (by 98%) the chances of passing the virus to their unborn baby by taking certain antretroviral therapies prescribed by their doctor during pregnancy. After birth the baby may also be put on treatment for a short period to reduce the change of infection.
How does an HIV test work?
Most HIV tests check for antibodies that the body produces once infected with the virus. Antibodies are proteins that the immune system produces to fight off all different kinds of infections, including HIV. If an HIV test detects HIV antibodies, a person is infected with HIV.
It can take weeks after infection for the body to develop enough antibodies to be measurable on a test. The time period between HIV exposure and a positive test is called the “window period,” during which a person could test negative for HIV but still be infected and able to transmit the virus to others. Your health care provider who provides the test can advise as to whether retesting may be recommended.
What kinds of tests are available?
There are several different types of HIV tests, but the two most common types are blood tests and oral swab tests. If you have a preference, ask your health care provider. A version of the oral test that can be taken at home is also now available for sale in many drug stores.
HIV blood tests may be finger prick or a draw from the inner arm, and typically take a few weeks to get back results from the lab. Rapid oral HIV tests use a swab to collect cells from inside the mouth and may be available on site in as fast as 20 minutes.
Is an HIV test part of my routine physical?
Even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends HIV testing as part of routine medical care, many doctors do not offer testing for HIV (or other STDs) unless you specifically ask to be tested.
Having your blood drawn does not mean you are necessarily being tested. HIV also cannot be diagnosed with a pap smear or through a pelvic or prostate exam.
If you don’t feel comfortable asking your health care provider to test you, there are many health clinics you can go to get tested. Many offer free or low cost testing so don’t let cost be a deterrent. And, don’t be afraid to ask questions. For local HIV testing locations in your area click here.
How will my privacy be protected?
HIV test results are included in your medical record and fall under the same strict privacy rules as other medical information. Information about your HIV test cannot be released without your permission. If your test shows you are infected with HIV, this information will be reported to the state health department but remains confidential and protected. A positive HIV test result is also reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but without any identifying information—such as name or address–attached. CDC uses this information to keep track of HIV/AIDS in the United States and to direct funding and resources where they are needed the most. CDC does not share this information with anyone else, including insurance companies.
At some testing locations you can get tested anonymously, meaning your name is not linked to your test results. However, anonymous testing sites are not available in all states and at all locations. You can also take an at home oral HIV test where the results are only known to you.
If you do test positive, it is important to get into care right away. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends all HIV positive persons start antiretroviral therapy as soon as they are diagnosed, both for their own health and wellbeing as well as to help prevent the spread of the virus to others.
How much does an HIV test cost?
If you have health insurance, HIV testing may be covered in full. If you are paying out of pocket the cost can vary at different locations. Cost should not be a reason not to get tested. Free and/or low cost testing is available at many health centers. To find an HIV testing in your area click here.
Will I be tested if I donate blood?
When you donate blood, your blood is tested for HIV and other infections to make sure it is safe for others to receive. This kind of testing is why the blood supply of the United States and other developed countries is so safe. Any blood found to be unhealthy in some way is not used.
However, blood donation is not a reliable or recommended way to learn your HIV status.
What if I test positive for HIV?
If you test positive for HIV the most important first step is to see medical doctor to get on treatment and in care, even if you don’t feel sick. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends anyone who is HIV positive go on antiretroviral treatment as soon as they are diagnosed. Antiretroviral treatments work to lower the amount of HIV in the body which, when taken regularly, means better health, a longer life, and less chance of spreading the disease to others. Early diagnosis and treatment can also delay the progression of HIV to AIDS.
Maintaining your treatment and staying in regular medical care is a critical part of living healthy and well with HIV. Being on antiretroviral treatment also significantly reduces—by as much as 96%–the chances of passing the virus on to others.
I tested negative, now what?
If you test negative take actions to stay that way.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), male latex condoms are highly effective when used consistently and correctly, in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV and many other STDs. Condoms are also the only method of protection that prevents both pregnancy and disease.
Also get tested regularly, and encourage your partners to as well.
The CDC recommends that all Americans between the ages of 18-64 be tested for HIV as part of routine health care. More frequent testing is recommended for those at higher risk, such as gay and bisexual men.