The CDC recommends HIV testing for everyone between the ages of 13 and 64. This does not mean that testing is done automatically when you see a healthcare provider, even if you have blood drawn. The only way to know for sure you are being tested is to ask to be tested.
HIV testing also is recommended for all pregnant women as a routine part of prenatal care. A woman who has HIV and is pregnant can take certain medications during pregnancy that, combined with medical care, can significantly lower the chances of passing HIV to her baby.
Most HIV tests check for antibodies that the body produces once infected with HIV. Antibodies are proteins that the immune system produces to fight off different kinds of infections, including HIV. If an HIV test detects HIV antibodies, a person is infected with HIV.
If antibodies are not present, a person is considered non-reactive for HIV. It can take as long as 90 days for the body to develop enough antibodies to be measurable on this type of test. The time period between HIV exposure and a positive test is called the “window period,” during which you could test non-reactive for HIV but still be infected with HIV and able to transmit the virus to others. It is important to get tested (or re-tested) after a sufficient period of time has passed to know for sure.
There are several types of HIV tests, but the two most common types are blood tests and oral swab tests. Both forms have the same accuracy with their results. HIV blood tests use a sample of blood, either from a finger prick or a larger sample often taken from the inner arm, to test for HIV antibodies. Oral tests use a swab to collect cells from inside the mouth to test for HIV antibodies. Traditional HIV test results can take one to two weeks to come back from a lab, but rapid tests that can provide a result in about 20 minutes are widely available.
There are also at-home HIV tests. EPIC offers free, at-home test kits that consist of a simple oral swab and are processed in about 20 minutes. There is no need to mail the test back or wait weeks for results. A trained counselor will guide you through the process, explain the results and, if needed, connect you will the appropriate services.
Viral load tests are used by physicians to monitor their patients who have already tested positive for HIV antibodies. These are very costly and should not be used to determine if someone is HIV positive.
Even though HIV testing is recommended as part of routine medical care, many doctors do not offer testing for HIV or other STDs unless you specifically ask to be tested. If you are not comfortable talking with your regular healthcare provider or do not have a provider, there are many clinics that specialize in testing.
Anonymous testing means that absolutely no one has access to your test results since your name is never recorded at the test site. Anonymous testing sites are not available in all states and at all locations. Home tests also are anonymous.
Confidential testing means that you and the healthcare provider know your results, which will be recorded in your medical file, just like the results of any other tests. If you test positive for HIV, your result will also be shared with your state’s health department for purposes of monitoring trends in the HIV epidemic. Remember, if you do test positive, it is very important for you to work closely with your doctor to get the care and treatment you need.
The cost of HIV testing varies. Clinics that offer tests for free or on a sliding scale are available in most areas. EPIC offers free, confidential, rapid testing at our five locations and mobile unit. Health insurance may cover the cost of HIV testing. Call ahead to your doctor or local clinic to find out how they charge for HIV tests or to your health insurance provider to find out if the tests are covered.
The most common locations for HIV testing are local health departments, private physicians, hospitals and test sites specifically set up for HIV testing. EPIC provides free confidential, rapid testing at our five locations and at alternate locations through our mobile unit. We also provide at-home tests (also called “self-tests”) that may be performed in the comfort of your own home.
The CDC National AIDS Hotline can answer questions about testing and refer you to testing sites in your area. The hotline numbers are 1-800-342-2437 (English), 1-800-344-7432, (Spanish), or 1-800-243-7889 (TTY). Go to the Testing page on our website for our locations and testing hours or call us at 727-328-3260.
The most important thing to do if you test negative is to stay negative. Your HIV test result reveals only your HIV status. It does not indicate whether or not your partner(s) has HIV. HIV is not necessarily transmitted every time you have sex. Ask your partner if he or she has been tested for HIV and what risk behaviors he or she has engaged in, both currently and in the past. Think about getting tested together.
If you test positive, the sooner you take steps to protect your health, the better. With treatments today, you can lead a long, healthy life as an HIV-positive person. Get connected with services and support as soon as possible. Early medical treatment, a healthy lifestyle and a positive attitude can help you stay well.
It is important to know that a positive HIV test should always be confirmed, to be sure that it is a true positive. If your test result is positive, you immediately should:
- See a doctor or other licensed healthcare provider, even if you don’t feel sick. Try to find one who has experience treating HIV. There are medications to treat HIV that will help you suppress the virus and maintain good health.
- Have a tuberculosis (TB) test done. You may have TB and not know it. Undetected TB can cause serious illness, but it can be treated successfully if detected early.
- Stop or reduce the use of recreational drugs, alcoholic beverages and cigarettes, which can weaken your immune system. There are programs to help you quit these substances.
- Get screened for other STIs. Undetected STIs can cause serious health problems.
- Consider joining a support group for people with HIV or speaking with a counselor.
- Connect with other local and/or national resources that might help you.
- Talk with your sexual partner(s) about your HIV status and make sure you reduce your risk of transmitting the virus by maintaining your HIV treatment and medications and practicing safer sex, including using latex condoms.
For information on our services and other available local resources, call us at 727-328-3260.
For additional information and referrals, call the CDC National AIDS Hotline at 1-800-342-2437 (English), 1-800-344-7432 (Spanish) or 1-800-243-7889 (TTY).