Medical doctor

HIV testing is an important way to keep yourself healthy and protect both current and future partners.

If your test result is negative, you’ll get peace of mind. If it’s positive, you’ll get the medicines you need to stop the virus from damaging your body. You’ll also be able to protect future partners from the virus.

Learn more about UPMC’s HIV services

People on HIV medicines can live long, healthy lives. Here’s what you need to know about HIV testing.

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Where to Get Tested

There are numerous options for HIV testing that don’t require a doctor’s note. You can get tested through:

  • Your doctor’s office
  • A pharmacy
  • STD or sexual health clinics
  • A Veterans Affairs medical center
  • A substance abuse treatment program
  • Local public health department
  • At-home HIV tests
  • Family planning clinics
  • Community health centers

Most health insurance plans will cover an HIV test without requiring a copay, even if you haven’t met your deductible. If you don’t have health insurance, many centers offer tests for free or on a sliding scale. Sliding scale means you pay what you can and if you can’t pay anything, you’ll still get tested.

To find a list of locations near you with HIV testing, enter your town, city, or zip code at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) HIV testing website. The website will give you a list of options, with a phone number and address for each site. Call ahead to find out the cost, whether you need to book an appointment, and what type of HIV test they offer.

You also can call the CDC’s hotline at 1-800-232-4636 to hear about local testing options.

When to Get Tested

The CDC recommends that everyone ages 13 to 64 get tested for HIV at least once. That means your health care provider may recommend HIV screening at some point, even if you’re not at high risk.

Those who are at high risk should get tested at least once a year. This category includes men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs with shared supplies, and people with multiple sexual partners. You can see the full description of what high risk means on the CDC website.

The CDC also suggests that both you and a new partner get tested before you have sex for the first time.

All pregnant women should get tested.

If you are worried about a particular incident, keep in mind that an HIV test may not turn positive for 2.5 to 12 weeks after exposure. This can be due to the type of test used and the time it takes your body time to make antibodies in response to HIV, which is the basis for many HIV tests.

Types of HIV Tests

There are a range of HIV tests. Most testing centers offer a needle-based blood test. Check with testing sites in your area to see what other options are available.

You also can order an in-home test kit. The test you pick depends on how quickly you need results, how long ago you may have been exposed to HIV, and whether you hate needles.

Blood tests

With an HIV blood test, a nurse or technician draws a small sample of blood from a vein using a needle. Some HIV tests require only a few drops of blood from a finger prick.

Blood tests typically use a combination HIV antigen/antibody test. The viral antigen is detectable early in infection, followed by antibodies the body produces to fight HIV after someone has been infected.

An antigen/antibody test with blood taken from the vein will turn positive between 2.5 to 6.5 weeks after exposure. Antigen/antibody tests that use blood taken from a finger prick may not detect HIV until almost 13 weeks after transmission. This is likely because the smaller sample of blood makes antibodies harder to detect.

Swab tests

If you don’t like needles, there is an alternative. Swab tests look for antibodies to HIV in a sample of saliva from your mouth. The tester will run a swab along your gums. If you choose an at-home test, you’ll do this yourself.

The only drawback is oral tests using a swab don’t detect HIV as quickly as standard blood tests. It can take up to 3 months after exposure before the body produces enough antibodies for a swab test to detect.

Rapid tests

Rapid tests use either saliva swabs or finger pricks. Both can take up to 3 months post-HIV transmission before they become positive. If you get tested during this time, you can get a negative result even if you actually have HIV. You also have the highest risk of giving HIV to other people during this time.

The benefit of rapid tests is that you’ll get the result within 20 minutes. With regular HIV tests, it can take a few days to get results. If a rapid HIV test shows that you have HIV, you must get a follow-up test to make sure the initial test results are correct.

Home tests

There are two types of in-home tests. Swab tests provide a result right away. There are also finger prick tests, which you mail to a lab.

Home tests cost around $40. The test kit includes a phone number for a 24-hour counseling service you can call to discuss your results and get a referral for treatment.

Limitations

Depending on the type of test used and how recently you had an exposure, your test may not turn positive for weeks. If you remain concerned, it is important to get re-tested after a few weeks. During this time, it is very important to either avoid sexual contact with partners or use condoms to prevent exposure. If you share injection drug supplies, it is just as important not to share until you have been re-tested.

If you notice symptoms such as fever, rash, fatigue, or swollen glands, see a medical provider and get tested right away. These symptoms can suggest an acute HIV illness.

No test is perfect. If a swab or finger-prick test comes back as inconclusive or reactive, follow up with a blood test to confirm.

Sources

Avert. What happens after an HIV test and getting the results. Link

CDC. HIV Testing. Link

hiv.gov. HIV Testing Overview. Link

Roger Pebody. How accurate are rapid, point-of-care tests for HIV? A research briefing. NAM. Link

Planned Parenthood. Should I get tested for HIV? Link

US National Library of Medicine. HIV Screening Test. Link

About Infectious Diseases

If you have a disease caused by bacteria, fungi, parasite, or virus, the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases can help. We have specialty units for prevention and treatment of HIV-AIDs, postsurgical and transplant infections, and illnesses caused by international travel. Our faculty research infectious diseases and participate in clinical trials to learn more and develop better treatment and prevention methods.