Comprehensive Guide to HIV Testing
HIV testing determines whether or not you are infected with the Human Immunodeficiency
Virus (HIV). This virus destroys the body's ability to fight off illness,
and is the cause of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).
- Immune system monitoring and early treatment can greatly improve your
long term health.
- Knowing you are positive may help you change behaviors that would put
yourself and others at risk.
- You will know whether or not you can infect others.
- Women and their partners considering pregnancy can take advantage of
treatments that potentially prevent transmission of HIV to the baby.
- If you test negative, you may feel less anxious after testing.
- Anal, vaginal, or oral sex without a condom. If you have another sexually
transmitted disease, you chances of contracting HIV during sex are much
- Direct blood or mucous membrane contact with an infected person's blood.
- From an infected mother to her child, during pregnancy, birth, or breast
- Sharing needles or equipment for drug use.
Testing is recommended if:
- You think you may have been exposed to the HIV. If you're not sure,
take this anonymous
- You are sexually active (3 or more sexual partners in the last 12 months)
- You received a blood transfusion between 1977 and 1985, or a sexual
partner received a transfusion and later tested positive for HIV.
- You are uncertain about your sexual partner's risk behaviors.
- You are a male who has had sex with another male at any time since 1977.
- Any of your male sexual partners has had sex with another male since
- You have used street drugs by injection since 1977, especially when
sharing needles and/or other equipment.
- You have a sexually transmitted disease (STD), including pelvic inflammatory
- You are a health care worker with direct exposure to blood on the job.
- You are pregnant. There are now treatments that can greatly reduce the
risk that a pregnant woman who has HIV will give the virus to her baby.
- You are a woman who wants to make sure you are not infected with HIV
before getting pregnant.
Even if you have no risk factors for HIV infection, you may still want
to get tested to ease your own mind. This also encourages everyone to be
more responsible about HIV transmission.
After a possible HIV exposure:
An HIV test will not detect the presence of the HIV virus immediately after
exposure. Statistics show that 96% (perhaps higher) of all infected individuals
will test positive within 2 to 12 weeks. In some cases, this may take up
to six months.
Think about this: if you got a negative test at six weeks, would you
believe it? Would it make you less anxious? If so, go for it. But to be
certain, you will need to be tested again at six months.
- Many people continue to engage in some degree of risky behavior, and
choose to be tested for HIV periodically (every six months, every year,
or every other year.)
Since the window period for developing a positive test result can
be as long as six months, it would rarely make sense to be tested more
often than this.
There are clear benefits to early medical attention for infection
with the HIV virus. There is little agreement on how early this must
be. But if you wait longer than two years, treatment of the disease
may be less effective.
- If you are beyond the six month window period from a possible HIV transmission
event and were reported HIV negative by an accurate HIV test (and you
are not subsequently put at risk for HIV), you can consider yourself HIV
negative. There is no need to retest. However if it eases your anxiety,
you may wish to take the test again periodically.
Anonymous testing means that absolutely no one has access to your test results
since your name is never recorded at the test site. Confidential testing sometimes
means identifying yourself in some manner to the test site, with their assurance
that this information will remain private.
Anonymous test sites are highly recommended because:
- The quality of the education and counseling that is provided is very
- The testing is usually free.
- The testing is reliable and automatically includes confirming tests.
- It protects you from risks of discrimination or adverse impact, especially
in applications for insurance.
- Sometimes even taking an HIV test, regardless of the result, might cause
an insurance application to be refused.
Anonymous testing sites never give written results. Some sites who do anonymous
testing also do confidential testing, which may also include written results.
At least 11 states do not currently provide anonymous testing.
- Depending on the test you take, you may have to wait a week or more
obtain your results.
- If you can, take a friend with you to pick up your results - especially
if this is your first test or if it has been a long time since you last
tested. They may be a source of comfort for you if your results are positive.
If not, the two of you can celebrate together.
- Some more recently developed tests can provide you with your results
within an hour. Occasionally these tests can be inconclusive, and you
must still wait one or two weeks for the final result.
A negative test result means:
- If you have not engaged in any risky behaviors for the last 6 months,
you are not currently infected with HIV. If you have had unprotected sex
or shared needles or have other risk factors in the last 6 months, you
should be tested again. You could still be HIV positive, and pass the
HIV on to other people, even though your test is negative.
- A negative test does not mean that you are immune to HIV.
- Some people who have a negative test may be tempted to continue risk
behaviors, believing "It can't happen to me." If you continue unsafe behaviors,
you are still at risk.
A positive test result means:
- You are infected with the HIV virus. This does not necessarily mean
that you have AIDS.
- A person with HIV is infected for life. He or she can pass the virus
to others by having unprotected sex, or by sharing drug use needles or
equipment. To protect yourself and others, you need to avoid doing these
things. A woman who has HIV can pass it on to her unborn or breast feeding
baby. Those carrying the HIV virus should not donate blood, plasma, semen,
body organs, or other tissue.
- You should choose
a doctor to monitor the progression of HIV in your body, and advise
you on when it is appropriate to begin treatment. There are differing
opinions about how early to begin treatment, but it's clearly much better
to begin treatment long before symptoms of AIDS develop. The only way
you can tell when to begin treatment is by having a doctor interpret additional
tests. You may wish to change to a doctor that specializes in HIV care.
- If your HIV test is positive, your sexual partners and anyone with whom
you have shared drug injection equipment may also be infected. They should
be told they have been exposed to HIV and advised to seek HIV counseling
and antibody testing. You can tell them yourself, work with your doctor,
or ask for help from the local health department. Health departments do
not reveal your name to sexual or drug-use partners, only the fact that
they have been exposed to HIV.
Periodic testing has the following benefits:
- It takes up to 6 months for the HIV virus to be detected. If you have
tested before this time has passed, you should test again to allow for
- Always knowing your HIV status may empower you to continue doing the
- May give you an increased peace of mind in knowing you are negative.
- If you should become positive, you will know at the earlier possible
moment and will have more treatment options available to you than if you
learn about this later.
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound Of Cure.
Last Revised June 27, 2003