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What's your first HIV test like?

Jul 25, 1996

Im sure that others, as well as myself, are interested in knowing what happens when you go that first time time to tested for HIV. I realize its a blood test, but could you give me some insight as to what type of questions will be asked upon testing, and then again upon testing positive. What is a false positive test? or false negative?

Response from Mr. Sowadsky

Hi, Thank you for your question. The experiences a person has while taking a test for the first time can vary greatly from one place to another. Some places just do the test with no test counseling associated with it. They just take the blood and that's it. Other places will do what's called pre- and post-test counseling, meaning they will sit down with you one-on-one, and explain to you all about the test. This is the preferred way to go. During test counseling, a person will explain all about you can get HIV and how you can't, how the testing is done, prevention, condom use etc. They may also ask you risk questions....what risks did you take that prompted you to take the test? What is your sexual orientation and drug history? Have you ever had a blood transfusion? These questions are asked for demographic purposes. They will also ask you how long ago you took those risks. This question is asked since it can take the test up to 6 months to show positive on the test. They may also ask if you want to be tested for other Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD's) like syphilis, gonorrhea or chlamydia (among others). It takes an average of about a week to get your test results. If the test is negative, a place that does post-test counseling will make sure you waited long enough to get an accurate test result (6 months). They will also review with you how to protect yourself in the future, and talk to you about what you will do to stay negative. In places that don't have post test counseling, they just say your negative without explaining what a negative result really means. Obviously places that do post-test counseling provide you with more information to help you. Some places will give test results over the phone or by mail. Others will only give results in-person. Getting test results in-person is preferable, since over the phone or by mail, it's hard to know who you're actually talking to (since you can't see the person), and by mail, anyone can open up a person's mail. Test results given in-person ensure that other people will not get your test results by accident. If you test positive, a counselor will discuss with you what it means to have HIV, and explain that testing positive doesn't necessarily mean that you have AIDS. Only other tests can determine whether you have AIDS or not. In some states, your test results will confidentially be reported to the local health department (a common proceedure for many infectious diseases and many STD's). They will discuss with you partner notification, so your sex/needle-sharing partners will know that they need to get tested too. This is often done by the health department on an anonymous basis. They will then link you up with local agencies to receive medical care, and link you up with support groups, counseling, and other types of help. In other words, you will be linked up with the local services that you would need. As to false positives, these are extremely rare these days since a series of tests are done on a single blood specimin. If the first test (usually the ELISA test) is repeatedly positive, it will be confirmed with a confirmatory test (usually a Western Blot or an IFA test). You must test positive on the confirmatory test to be considered HIV positive. As to false negatives, these usually occur if you took the test too soon. The average period of time from infection to testing positive is 25 days. This is an average, so many people may take longer than 25 days to show positive. At 3 months, most, but not all, infected people will test positive on the tests. At 6 months, more than 99% of infected people will show positive on the tests. This is as accurate as the test could ever be. As an example, if a person were to take the test at 2 weeks post exposure, if they got a negative result, they could be infected and the test just didn't pick it up yet. This is called a false negative. However, false negatives beyond 6 months are extremely rare.

If you have further questions, please feel free to call the Centers for Disease Control at 1.800.232.4636 (Nationwide).

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