Last Updated on August 2, 2022 by Dr. Neeraj Gujar
An HIV test can determine if you have been infected by HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). HIV is a virus that attacks and destroys cells of the immune system. These cells protect your body from disease-causing germs such as viruses and bacteria. Your body will struggle to fight off infections and other diseases if you have too few immune cells.
There are three types of HIV test:
- Antibody Test. This test looks for HIV antibodies within your bloodstream or saliva. When you are exposed to viruses or bacteria, your immune system produces antibodies. An HIV antibody test can tell you if you have HIV between 3-12 weeks after being infected. Because it can take several weeks for your immune system to make antibodies to HIV. An HIV antibody test may be possible in your own home. Ask your doctor about home HIV testing kits.
- HIV Antibody/Antigen Testing. This test checks for HIV antibodies as well as antigens in the blood. An antigen is an element of a virus that triggers the immune response. Antigens can be found in the blood of people who have been exposed to HIV before HIV antibodies are produced. This test can detect HIV in as little as 2-6 weeks after infection. One of the most popular HIV tests is the HIV antibody/antigen test.
- HIV Viral Load. This test measures the HIV level in the blood. Although it can detect HIV more quickly than other tests (antibody/antigen and test), it is also very costly. It is used mainly to monitor HIV infections.
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Why Test Is Done?
An HIV testing can be used to determine if you are HIV-positive. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. The majority of people living with HIV do not have AIDS. People living with AIDS have a low immune system and are more at risk of serious illnesses such as deadly infections and severe forms of pneumonia. You can receive medications if HIV is detected early to protect your immune system. HIV medications may help you avoid getting AIDS.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that approximately 1.2 million had HIV at the end of 2019. About 13% of people with HIV don’t know they have it. They may not get the treatment they require and can also transmit the virus unknowingly to others. Almost 40% of all new HIV cases are passed by people who have not been diagnosed.
The recommendations of the CDC for HIV testing recommend that healthcare professionals provide routine HIV screenings as part of their standard care, regardless of risk factors. Many Americans have not been tested for HIV despite these recommendations. If you haven’t had the testing done, your healthcare provider should recommend it. You can also get anonymous HIV testing at your local clinic.
When To Get Tested?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all people between 13 and 64 years old should get HIV testing at least once. This is part of routine medical care. If you have a higher risk of infection, a test may be required. HIV is spread mainly through sexual contact and blood. You are at high risk if you
- You have had sex with an HIV-infected partner
- Have multiple sex partners
- Inject drugs such as heroin or share needles with another person
HIV can be passed from mother to baby through breast milk and birth. Your doctor may recommend an HIV test for pregnant women. You can take certain medications during pregnancy or delivery to reduce the risk of your baby contracting HIV.
The CDC recommends routine HIV testing in all healthcare settings, particularly if there is a need to test for other Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) simultaneously.
At least one annual HIV testing should be done on anyone who engages in behavior that puts them at higher risk of contracting HIV.
Some of the most common risk factors are:
- Multiple sexual partners
- Partnering with someone who has been diagnosed with HIV
- Engaging in sex without a condom, barrier method, or pre-exposure protocol (PrEP).
- Injecting drugs with a shared needle
It is recommended that you test for HIV.
- If a woman learns they are pregnant
- Before a person starts a new sexual relationship
- If a person is experiencing symptoms of another sexually transmitted disease (STI)
HIV infection is considered manageable, particularly if it is treated early. Early detection and treatment are keys to HIV prevention as they can also help:
- Improve their mental state
- Reduce their chances of developing the disease
- Stop the development stage 3 HIV or AIDS
This can help to reduce the risk of them transmitting the virus.
People with HIV who begin treatment early have the same life expectancy as people without the virus. Anyone who suspects they have been exposed should seek treatment as soon as possible.
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Sometimes, if the patient is treated within 72 hours, a healthcare professional might prescribe post exposure prophylaxis. These emergency medications can help to reduce the chances of them contracting HIV once they have been exposed.
How To Get Tested?
This test does not require any preparations. Talking to a counselor before and/or following your HIV testing will help you better understand the results and determine your treatment options.
During the Test
Either you will have your blood tested in a laboratory or you can do it yourself at home.
To have a blood test done in a laboratory:
- A small needle is used by a health professional to take blood from a vein on your arm. Once the needle has been inserted, some blood will be taken and stored in a vial or test tube. The needle may cause a slight stinging sensation when it is inserted or removed. It usually takes less than five minutes.
To perform an at-home test, you’ll need to take a small amount of saliva or blood from your fingertip.
- The test kit contains instructions for how to obtain your sample, pack it and send it off to a laboratory.
- A saliva test will require you to use a special spatula-like instrument to remove your saliva from your mouth.
- A special tool is used to poke your finger with a needle and take a sample of blood for a fingertip anti-globulin blood test.
Talk to your doctor for more information about at-home testing.
After The Test
A screening of HIV testing is not a risky procedure. A lab may give you a blood test. You might feel some slight discomfort or bruise around the site where the needle was placed, but these symptoms usually disappear quickly.
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Negative results of Test can indicate that you don’t have HIV. Negative results could also indicate that you may have HIV, but it’s too early to know. It may take several weeks for HIV antibodies or antigens in your body to become visible. Your health care provider might order additional HIV test if your results are negative.
If the test is positive, you will be sent for a follow-up test. HIV is diagnosed if both of your tests come back positive. This does not necessarily mean that you have AIDS. Although there is no cure, HIV can be managed with medication. Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) is the medicine that treats HIV. HIV can be significantly reduced by ART. HIV-positive people who receive ART early on can live long and healthy lives. You should see your doctor regularly if you are HIV-positive.
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With the help of modern testing techniques, HIV can be detected a month after the person contracts it.
The most recognizable difference is the difference in the time it takes for the results to be out. With a rapid test, it takes 20 minutes for results to be available. Whereas, a traditional takes about 2 weeks to provide results. The rapid test is primarily for the screening process and if HIV is detected with this test further tests are prescribed for confirmation.
You can ask for HIV testing from your healthcare provider or you can get anonymous testing from established diagnostic centers.
- AIDSinfo, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; HIV Overview: HIV Testing
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; About HIV/AIDS
- Lab Tests Online: American Association for Clinical Chemistry; HIV Antibody and HIV Antigen
- Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; HIV testing
- UW Health. University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority; Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Test: Results