You can get HIV from unprotected sex, an accidental needle stick, or using a dirty needle to inject drugs. If that happened to you, there’s a chance that you’ve been exposed to the virus that causes AIDS. Exposure doesn’t automatically mean infection. But you should act quickly to lower your chances of getting HIV.
Here are your first steps:
This is the only way to find out for sure if you have the virus. You can get a test at a hospital emergency room or at one of these places:
- A community health center
- Your doctor's office
- An STD clinic
- A family planning/pregnancy clinic
- A drug prevention or treatment center
Some tests can find HIV itself. But you’re most likely to get one that checks for antibodies that your immune system makes to fight the virus. A rapid test can show if you're HIV positive in 30 minutes.
You also can buy home tests in stores or online for more privacy. Some use your saliva and give you results in minutes. If it’s positive, you should confirm it with a second test at a clinic.
Other, more accurate home tests require you to prick your finger for blood and mail the sample to a lab. You can retrieve your result by phone with a confidential PIN.
Many health insurance plans cover the cost of HIV tests. If you don't have insurance, some clinics offer free tests.
It can take up to 3 months for HIV to show up on tests. So if you got tested soon after your exposure and the test was negative, get tested again after 3 months.
Start PEP Quickly
PEP is short for post-exposure prophylaxis. It’s emergency medicine you take every day to stop the virus from growing in your body. A hospital emergency room, an urgent care center, an HIV clinic, or your doctor can prescribe PEP or have it in stock.
The CDC recommends that you take PEP if you:
- Had sex without condoms with someone who might have HIV
- Shared needles while using drugs
- Were sexually assaulted
- Were exposed to blood in a health care setting from someone who might have HIV
PEP can lower your risk of HIV infection by more than 90%. But you need to start it within 72 hours after possible contact with the virus and ideally within the first 36 hours. The sooner you take this medicine, the better it will work.
You take PEP every day for 28 days. After you finish the medicine, you'll take another HIV test.
Medicaid and some private health insurance plans pay for PEP. If you don't have insurance, ask your doctor if you might qualify for patient assistance programs to get the drugs for free.
Symptoms of HIV
The virus shows up differently in different people. About two-thirds of people will have flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, muscle aches, fatigue, and a sore throat 2 to 4 weeks after they’re infected. But many people don’t notice any symptoms at all. That’s why it’s so important to get tested if you think you might have come into contact with the virus.
If you test positive for HIV, see a doctor right away so you can start taking medication (called antiretroviral therapy, or ART) as soon as possible. If you take it every day exactly as your doctor prescribes, it can lower the amount of the virus in your blood to a point where it doesn’t show up on a lab test. This is called an undetectable viral load. It’s the best way to live a long, healthy life with HIV. And it essentially gets rid of your risk of passing the virus to someone else.
See your doctor if you have flu-like symptoms that don’t get better after several days or if you have problems like rapid weight loss with no clear cause, sores in your mouth or around your genitals, swollen lymph nodes, blotches on your skin, or a mouth infection called thrush. These can be signs of an HIV infection that’s getting worse or that has become AIDS.
Until you know for sure that you don’t have the virus, or if you know that you're HIV-positive, take care to protect others.
Be honest. Let your partners know that you could have been exposed to HIV so that they can get tested, too.
Safeguard your partner. Use a condom every time you have sex, including oral sex. It physically blocks the virus, protects against other STDs, and helps prevent pregnancy. Use only water-based lubricants with condoms. Oil-based lubes can damage or break condoms.
Use only clean needles. Many cities have needle exchange programs where you can get new ones for free. Check the North American Syringe Exchange Network website for a location near you.
Don't donate blood or semen. Wait until your doctor confirms that you are HIV negative. Blood banks and fertility clinics screen all samples for HIV. In some states, it’s illegal to donate blood if you know you have HIV.
Protect your baby. Get tested right away if you're pregnant. If the test is positive, you can take medicine so you won’t pass the virus to your baby. If you’re a new mother, don't breastfeed for at least 3 months or until your doctor confirms you're HIV-free. The virus and your medication can pass through your breast milk to your newborn.
CDC: "Home Tests," "PEP," "Testing."
GMHC: "PEP and PrEP."
HIV.gov: "HIV Testing Locations," "Post-Exposure Prophylaxis," "Understanding HIV Test Results,” “How Can You Tell If You Have HIV?” “HIV Treatment as Prevention.”
Houston Methodist: "Important Information About HIV and AIDS."
Mayo Clinic: "HIV/AIDS."
Medscape: "Should postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) be given to pregnant or breastfeeding medical workers who have been exposed to HIV?"
National Institutes of Health: "Recommendations for the Use of Antiretroviral Drugs in Pregnant Women with HIV Infection and Interventions to Reduce Perinatal HIV Transmission in the United States."
New York State Department of Health: "I Might Have Been Exposed to HIV…Here's My Action Plan."
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP)," "The Basics of HIV Prevention."
World Health Organization: "Post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV infection."
American Academy of Family Physicians: “What is HIV?”