HIV Testing 101

Published October 21, 2008

Updated Oct. 7, 2008 – The HIV testing is the best way to tell whether you have the virus that can cause AIDS. However, many sexually active people avoid, afraid to know their status or simply don’t think it matters. Here is some information that can better help you understand what the HIV test is all about.

What is an HIV test? 
The HIV test uses blood, saliva or urine to determine whether or not you have been infected with the HIV virus. It's an antibody test that can tell whether or not the HIV virus based on whether or not the HIV antibody is in your system.

Who should be tested for HIV?
HIV/AIDS does not discriminate.  The virus does not single out any age, skin color, faith, sexual orientation or economic status.  It is not who you are, but what you do that determines whether you can become infected with HIV.  You are at risk for being infected with HIV if you have ever:

  • had unprotected sex of any kind,
  • shared drug needles and syringes,
  • had a blood transfusion or clotting factor between 1978 and 1985, or
  • had sex with someone whose history of risk-taking behaviors is unknown to you.
  • If you think you may be at risk, get tested and ask partners to do the same.

Where can I get tested? 
Your doctor can test you for HIV or direct you to a testing center. Public health departments can usually test you for HIV for free or at reduced cost.  Clinics and many community health centers offer HIV counseling and testing as well.  To find a testing center in your area, call 1.866.RAP IT UP or click here to find a testing center near you.

What is the difference between anonymous and confidential testing?
Some facilities offer anonymous testing, in which no names are retained (only code numbers by which someone can get their test results). Other facilities offer confidential testing, by which the person’s name is recorded, but kept confidential in the person’s medical and public health records.

What are the different types of HIV tests?
If you'd like to skip the explanations and go right to the video, here's a like to a Healthology video that explains the differnt types of tests and what happens during the testing process. It's a little dated, and has a hygiene-class feel, but it does provide all the information you need to know about the HIV test. Click here to watch the video.

There are several kinds of HIV tests available in the U.S.  The most common types of HIV tests detect antibodies to the virus, not the virus itself. Most people develop HIV antibodies within 3 months after being exposed to the HIV virus, but some may take up to 6 months (this is often referred to as the “window period”).  HIV tests include: 

  • Conventional blood test
    A blood sample is drawn and tested in a lab.  Results are generally available within a few days to two weeks.
  • Rapid HIV test
    Rapid HIV tests are performed at testing sites and can provide results in as little as 20 minutes, depending on the test.  If a rapid test is negative, no further testing is needed.   If a rapid test is positive, it must be confirmed with a more specific test performed in a lab.  Three rapid HIV tests recently approved by the FDA are commercially available. 
  • OraQuick is a rapid test that can be performed on either oral fluid (a health care provider wipes a treated swab along the gums of the mouth to collect a sample) or on blood obtained through a finger prick.  Although not offered at all testing sites at this time, the availability of OraQuick is increasing across the country. Two other rapid tests, which require blood draws, are also commercially available.
  • Conventional oral fluid test
    An oral fluid sample is collected by a health care provider, who swabs the inside of the mouth.  The sample is tested at a lab. OraSure is the only Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – approved HIV oral fluid test.  Results are generally available within a few days to two weeks.
  • Home test
    HomeAccess, the only home HIV test currently approved by the FDA, may be purchased from many drug stores and online.   An individual pricks their finger with a special device, places drops of blood on a specially treated card, and mails the card to a lab for testing.  Using an identification number printed on the card, they phone for test results, and may also receive counseling and referral by phone.  Results can be obtained in as little as three days.
  • Urine test
    A urine test is another alternative to a blood test.  A urine sample is collected by a health care provider and tested at a lab.  Calypte is the only FDA-approved urine HIV test. Results are generally available within a few days to two weeks.

What if I am negative?
The most common types of HIV tests detect antibodies to the virus, not the virus itself.  If you were tested within the “window period” after potential exposure to HIV - usually three months but could be up to six months - and you tested negative, you should be tested again after the six-month mark. 

And as always, protect yourself!  If you are having sex, make sure you know how to use a condom correctly and that you use one every time.  If you shoot up drugs, be sure to use sterilized needles and syringes each time, and don’t share your equipment. 

What if I am positive?
The sooner you take steps to protect your health, the better.  Medical treatment and a healthy lifestyle can help you stay well.  Proper treatment may delay or prevent the onset of AIDS and prevent some life-threatening conditions.

See a doctor, even if you don’t feel sick.  If possible, see a doctor who has experience with treating HIV.  Consulting someone about your treatment options is the first step towards maintaining your health. Find a support system.  The emotional and physical challenges ahead can be difficult; having people around to help is important. Ask your doctor about counselors and support groups can help you.

For more help in understaind HIV/AIDS and the importance of the HIV test, check out BET's Rap-It-UP Campaign site or go to KnowHIVAIDS.org.

Written by BET-Staff

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