If you believe you've been exposed to HIV, it's important to be tested.
Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, is a virus that attacks the immune system. This makes it hard for the body to fight infection and disease. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). But having HIV doesn't mean that you have AIDS.
HIV often causes flu-like symptoms soon after a person gets infected. These early symptoms go away in a few weeks. After that, signs of illness may not appear for many years. But as the virus multiplies in the body, symptoms reappear and then remain. Fatigue, weight loss, fever, night sweats, diarrhea, and other symptoms are common.
Treatment of HIV may prevent or delay HIV from developing into AIDS. If HIV isn't treated and progresses to AIDS, symptoms get worse and the body is less and less able to fight infections like pneumonia and tuberculosis.
Medicines are the main treatment for HIV. A doctor would likely prescribe several antiretroviral medicines, sometimes called antiretroviral therapy, or ART. By fighting the virus, these medicines can help the immune system stay healthy and delay or prevent AIDS. And they may help a person live longer.
An HIV test checks for HIV antibodies in the blood. If HIV antibodies are found, the test is considered positive.
Most doctors use two blood tests, called the ELISA and the Western blot assay. If the first ELISA is positive (meaning that HIV antibodies are found), the blood sample is tested again. If the second test is positive, the doctor will do a Western blot to be sure.
Most test facilities will have the ELISA test results in 2 to 4 days. Results of the Western blot take longer, 1 to 2 weeks. Rapid antibody tests are available that give results right away. But positive results of the rapid test need to be confirmed by the ELISA or Western blot test.
Even if HIV antibodies aren't found, you may need to be tested again, especially if you think you have been exposed. This is done to make sure that HIV antibodies don't appear at a later time. It can take as little as 2 weeks or as long as 6 months from the time you become infected with HIV for the antibodies to be found in your blood. Tests given at 6, 12, and 24 weeks can be done to be sure you aren't infected.
During this period, an infected person can still spread the infection even though his or her test was negative.
You can get HIV testing in most doctors' offices, public health clinics, hospitals, and Planned Parenthood clinics. You can also buy a home HIV test kit (saliva test) in a drugstore or by mail order. But be very careful to choose only a test that has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). If a home test is positive, you'll need to see a doctor to have the result confirmed and to find out what to do next.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that all people should get tested for HIV as part of their regular medical care.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends HIV screening:2
High-risk behavior means that you:
Some expert opinions may vary, and your doctor may recommend testing based on your personal history.
Even if you don't think you are at risk for HIV, getting tested may be useful. Some people who tested positive for HIV didn't believe they had a high risk before having the test.
Getting tested can help find an infection early or when you have no symptoms. This is important so that:
If your test shows that you have HIV, your sex partner(s) will need to know and get tested, which may affect your relationship.
If you have HIV, state law may require your doctor or the place where you had the test to report it to the state health department. Some states allow anonymous reporting (the person's name or other identifying information is not provided). Other states require confidential reporting (identifying information is provided but only to authorized public health officials).
With an ELISA test, you could have a false-positive test result, which shows that you have the disease when you actually don't. This could cause you unneeded worry until you have more tests to confirm that you don't have the disease.
If you use a home test kit, you could get a fast result, but it will still need to be confirmed with a test that can take several weeks.
Your doctor may want you to be tested if:
|Get tested for HIV||Don't get tested for HIV|
|What is usually involved?|
|What are the benefits?|
|What are the risks and side effects?|
Are you interested in what others decided to do? Many people have faced this decision. These personal stories may help you decide.
These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.
"My partner and I have been together a few months. I've had several HIV tests over the years and all were negative, including one I had in the beginning of our relationship. My partner said since I'm HIV-negative, he doesn't need a test. But my doctor said that's not true. He suggested that I talk to my partner about the kind of sex he had previously and ask him to get tested with me. I'm going to do that."
— Kevin, age 25
"I don't plan to have a test now. I talked with my doctor at my last physical, and she said my risk of HIV was very low since I'm a widow and not sexually active."
— Jocelyn, age 60
"I've never had an HIV test, and I'm getting ready to start college. I fooled around some in high school, and sometimes we used protection. My mom and I talked, and I've decided to have a test. I'm pretty scared about doing something like that, but she says she'll go with me."
— Heather, age 18
Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.
Reasons to get tested for HIV
Reasons not to get tested for HIV
I'm in a high-risk group for getting HIV.
I don't think I have a high risk of getting HIV.
I'm worried that I could have been exposed to HIV.
I have no reason to think that I might have been exposed to HIV.
I'm worried that if I have HIV and don't find out early, I won't start treatment soon enough.
I don't believe that I need treatment for HIV.
I want to be sure that I'm not spreading HIV to anyone.
I don't think there's any chance I could be spreading HIV to anyone.
My other important reasons:
My other important reasons:
Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.
Having an HIV test
NOT having an HIV test
1. I don't have any symptoms of HIV, so I don't believe I need a test.
2. I'm a newlywed, and I just found out I'm pregnant. My doctor and I discussed my having an HIV test, but I think it's unnecessary since my husband and I have only had sex with each other for the last year and a half. Do I really need the test?
3. It's a good idea that everyone be tested for HIV.
1. Do you understand the options available to you?
2. Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?
3. Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?
1. How sure do you feel right now about your decision?
2. Check what you need to do before you make this decision.
3. Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.
|Primary Medical Reviewer||E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine|
|Specialist Medical Reviewer||Peter Shalit, MD, PhD - Internal Medicine|
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Panel on Antiretroviral Guidelines for Adults and Adolescents (2011). Guidelines for the Use of Antiretroviral Agents in HIV-1-Infected Adults and Adolescents. Available online: http://www.aidsinfo.nih.gov/ContentFiles/AdultandAdolescentGL.pdf.
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (2013). Screening for HIV: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommendation statement. Available online: http://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/uspstf/uspshivi.htm.