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What Is HIV?

June 4, 2014

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Do I Need to Get Tested for HIV?

The CDC estimates that about one in five HIV+ people in the US do not know they have HIV. Many of these people look and feel healthy and do not think they are at risk. But the truth is that anyone of any age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, social group, or economic class can become infected. For more on how HIV is spread, see The Well Project's article on HIV transmission.

Answer the following questions:

  • Have you ever had vaginal, anal, or oral sex without a condom or other latex barrier (e.g., dental dam)?
  • Are you uncertain of your partner's status or is your partner HIV+?
  • Are you pregnant or considering becoming pregnant?
  • Have you ever had a sexually transmitted disease (STD)?
  • Do you have hepatitis C (HCV)?
  • Have you ever shared needles, syringes, or other equipment to inject drugs (including steroids or hormones)?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should definitely get an HIV test. In the US, it is now recommended that everyone age 13-64 be screened for HIV at least once.

Why Should I Get Tested?

If you are worried because you think you may have been exposed to HIV, get tested. Then, if you learn that you are negative (not infected), you can stop worrying. If you test HIV+ there are effective medications to help you stay well. But you cannot get the health care and treatment you need if you do not know your HIV status (whether you are HIV+ or HIV-negative). Being unaware of your status also means that you could pass HIV to others without knowing it.

For women who plan to become pregnant, testing is especially important. If a woman is infected with HIV, medical care and certain drugs given during pregnancy can lower the chance of passing HIV to her baby. For more information, see The Well Project's article, Pregnancy and HIV.

What Tests Are Available?

If you have been infected, your immune system will make antibodies against HIV. Antibodies are special proteins that our bodies make to identify "intruders" like viruses and bacteria. The most common HIV tests look for these antibodies in your blood, urine, or oral fluid (not your saliva). Your body will produce antibodies to HIV after three to six months. The period between infection and your body's production of HIV antibodies is called the "window period." Having a negative HIV test after the window period means you are not infected with HIV.


If you want to get tested before the window period has passed, there are antigen-antibody tests and viral tests that look for the presence of HIV's genetic material in the blood and can identify an HIV infection within two to three weeks of exposure. For more information, see The Well Project's article, HIV Testing.

Where Can I Get Tested?

There are many different types of places for you to get an HIV test. These include health clinics, private health care providers' offices, HIV testing centers, and health departments. There are also HIV tests you can order online or buy over-the-counter at stores that have pharmacies (e.g., CVS, Walgreens, Walmart). These tests are ones that allow you to collect a sample or complete a full rapid test (20 minutes) in the privacy of your home.

In the US, you can go to the National HIV and STD Testing Resources website or the website to find a testing site near you. You can also call the CDC's information line at 800-232-4636 or call your state's HIV/AIDS hotline (numbers listed here). To find services across the world, visit AIDSmap's e-atlas.

Is There a Vaccine to Prevent HIV Infection?

There is currently neither a vaccine nor a cure for HIV. The best way to prevent HIV is to use sterile needles and practice safer sex. For more information, see The Well Project's article on AIDS Vaccines.

Additional Information

As you learn more about HIV, you may find these articles helpful:

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.


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