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HIV Testing: What You Need to Know

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by David T. Derrer, MD

Wondering if you should get an HIV test? The answer is: Yes.

"Everybody needs to be tested for HIV at least once," says Brad Hare, director of the HIV/AIDS Division at San Francisco General Hospital. Fortunately, HIV testing is easier, quicker, and more accurate than it used to be. And because HIV treatment is more effective these days, getting tested isn’t as scary.

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Why You Need to Get Tested

Everybody between ages 15 and 65 should get the HIV test, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. If you haven't had the test yet, here are two things you should know:

HIV is treatable. Don’t avoid testing because you don’t want to know the results. Today, as long as you stick with treatment, you can expect to live a fairly normal, healthy, long life with HIV.

You might feel fine. If you're infected, you might feel OK even though HIV is damaging your body. You're also putting other people at risk. Once a person with HIV has symptoms, the disease is advanced and much harder to treat.

What Should I Expect From an HIV Test?

You can get an HIV test in lots of places: your doctor's office, clinics, hospitals, and health departments. Search for them online. The tests are typically inexpensive or free. HIV testing sites are either anonymous or confidential. You may talk with a counselor before the test and when you get the results

Most HIV tests are blood tests, although some are saliva and urine tests.

Antibody testsare the most common. They check for cells your body makes in reaction to HIV. The normal test takes a few days or a week to get results.

Rapid tests are antibody tests that are just as accurate and give you a result in 20 minutes.

Antibody tests involve a time delay. After exposure to the virus, your body usually takes 2 to 8 weeks to develop antibodies; sometimes 3 months or longer. So during that window, you could actually have and spread the virus but still test negative. It’s a good idea to follow up with a second test 3 months later.

If you have a positive result on an antibody test, you'll need a follow-up test called a Western blot to confirm it. These results may take a few days or weeks.

The PCR test can detect the virus itself.

Fourth-generation HIV tests detect antibodies and special proteins on the virus itself. These tests catch the virus earlier than antibody tests but are not routinely used yet.

What About Home HIV Tests?

You can buy a couple of different home HIV antibody tests now. They cost about $40. With the Home Access test, you prick your finger and then send a drop of blood off for testing. Like other antibody tests, it's more than 99% accurate. The results take 1 to 7 days. OraQuick is a mouth swab that gives you results in 20 minutes. It's about 92% accurate.

"If you're anxious about getting tested in a medical setting, the home tests are a good option," says John G. Bartlett, MD, former director of the Johns Hopkins AIDS Service. You will still want to follow up a home test with a test at your doctor's office or a clinic.

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