How long after a possible exposure should I wait to get tested for HIV?
Most HIV tests are antibody tests that measure the antibodies your body makes against HIV. It can take some time for the immune system to produce enough antibodies for the antibody test to detect, and this time period can vary from person to person. This time period is commonly referred to as the “window period.” Most people will develop detectable antibodies within 6 to 12 weeks (the average is 25 days). Even so, there is a chance that some individuals will take longer to develop detectable antibodies. Ninety-seven percent of persons will develop antibodies in the first 3 months following the time of their infection. In very rare cases, it can take up to 6 months to develop antibodies to HIV. Find the location of the HIV testing site nearest to you by visiting the National HIV Testing Resources online or call CDC-INFO 24 Hours/Day at 1-800-CDC-INFO (232-4636), 1-888-232-6348 (TTY), in English, en Español.
How do HIV tests work?
Once HIV enters the body, the immune system starts to produce antibodies – (chemicals that are part of the immune system that recognize invaders like bacteria and viruses and mobilize the body's attempt to fight infection). In the case of HIV, these antibodies cannot fight off the infection, but their presence is used to tell whether a person has HIV in his or her body. In other words, most HIV tests look for the HIV antibodies rather than looking for HIV itself.
The most common HIV tests use blood or saliva to detect HIV infection. Some tests take a few days for results, but rapid HIV tests can give results in about 20 minutes. Reactive rapid tests must be followed up by another test to confirm the result.
What are the different HIV screening tests available in the United States?
In most cases the EIA (enzyme immunoassay), used on blood drawn from a vein or oral swab from the mouth, is the most common screening test used to look for antibodies to HIV. A positive (reactive) EIA must be used with a follow-up (confirmatory) test such as the Western blot to make a positive diagnosis. Rapid 20 min. tests are EIA tests. A follow-up confirmatory Western blot uses the same procedures. These tests are provided at a variety of different locations such as doctor offices, AIDS Service Organizations (ASOs) and health departments.
Home Testing Kit
Home testing kits were first licensed in 1997. Although home HIV tests are sometimes advertised through the Internet, currently only the Home Access HIV-1 Test System is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The Home Access HIV-1 Test System can be found at most local drug stores. It is not a true home test, but a home collection kit. The testing procedure involves pricking a finger with a special device, placing drops of blood on a specially treated card, and then mailing the card in to be tested at a licensed laboratory. Customers are given an identification number to use when phoning in for the results. Callers may speak to a counselor before taking the test, while waiting for the test result, and when the results are given. All individuals receiving a positive test result are provided referrals for a follow-up confirmatory test, as well as information and resources on treatment and support services.
RNA tests look for genetic material of the virus and can be used in screening the blood supply and for detection of rare very early infection cases when antibody tests are unable to detect antibodies to HIV.
For a list of HIV tests that are FDA-approved, visit the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.
If I test HIV negative, does that mean that my partner is HIV negative also?
No. Your HIV test result reveals only your HIV status. Your negative test result does not indicate whether or not your partner has HIV. HIV is not necessarily transmitted every time you have sex. Therefore, your taking an HIV test should not be seen as a method to find out if your partner is infected. 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
What if I test positive for HIV?
If you test positive for HIV, the sooner you take steps to protect your health, the better. Early medical treatment and a healthy lifestyle can help you stay well. Prompt medical care may delay the onset of AIDS and prevent some life-threatening conditions.
There are a number of important steps you can take immediately to protect your health:
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Should I get tested?
The following are behaviors that increase your chances of getting HIV. If you answer yes to any of them, you should get an HIV test. If you continue with any of these behaviors, you should be tested every 6 months. Talk to a healthcare provider about an HIV testing schedule that is right for you.
Have you injected drugs, steroids or shared equipment (such as needles, syringes, works) with others?
Have you had unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex?
Have you exchanged sex for drugs or money?
Have you been diagnosed with or treated for hepatitis, tuberculosis (TB), or a sexually transmitted disease (STD), like syphilis?
Have you had unprotected sex with someone who could answer yes to any of the above questions?