Fact Sheets: Common Questions About HIV Testing & Counseling
December 1, 1999
Knowing your HIV status is the first step in seeking medical intervention and gaining access to effective strategies to prevent the spread of HIV.
Why should I be tested for HIV?
Typically the length of time between HIV infection and the development of symptoms is lengthy -- sometimes ten years or more. Knowing your HIV status has two vital benefits. First, if you know you are HIV infected, you can be evaluated for treatment even before symptoms appear. Second, if you know you are infected, you can take all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of HIV to others.
Where can I get tested for HIV?
Common testing locations include health departments, hospitals, private doctors, family planning or sexually transmitted disease clinics, mobile sites, drug treatment facilities, and sites specifically dedicated to HIV testing. Seek testing at a place that also provides HIV/AIDS counseling about the meaning of the test results, ways to protect yourself and others and the AIDS-related resources available in your area.
Can I keep my test results private?
Two types of testing are available:
Anonymous HIV testing means that no name is given to the testing center. Instead, the person tested is given a unique identifier code. The person tested is the only one who is made aware of the test results. Anonymous testing is available in many states.
At-home "collection kits" are also available. Each comes with a unique identification number. You do not give your name. Kits can be purchased over the counter or by mail. Home tests are generally quite accurate. However, you would not have the benefit of in-person counseling.
Confidential HIV testing, also called names reporting, records the person's name. Confidentiality laws and regulations protect the information. Medical personnel and, in some states, the state health department will have access to your test results. Also, if you choose to sign a release form to have your personal physician notified, the information will become a part of your medical record. It may be seen by health care workers, insurers or employers. Your status may become known if you make a claim for health insurance benefits or apply for life insurance or disability insurance. Confidential testing is available in all states.
What if I test positive for HIV?
If you test positive for HIV, early medical treatment and a healthy lifestyle can help you stay well, delay the onset of AIDS, and prevent some life-threatening conditions. If you are HIV-positive, follow these important steps immediately to protect your health:
Where can I get information about treatment?
When and how often should I be tested for HIV?
Because the tests commonly used to detect HIV infection actually look for antibodies produced by your body to fight HIV, you should wait a reasonable period of time before being tested. Most people develop detectable antibodies within 3 months after infection (the average is 25 days). In rare cases, it can take up to 6 months. Therefore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends testing 6 months after the last possible exposure (unprotected vaginal, anal, or oral sex or sharing needles).
People who may wish to be tested periodically include the HIV-negative partner of a serodiscordant couple, sex workers or others who have multiple sex partners, and people who inject drugs.
During the 6 months between exposure and the test, it is important to protect yourself and others from further possible exposures to HIV. Testing should never take the place of prevention.
How long does it take to get results?
Results from the most commonly used HIV antibody screening test, the ELISA, are not available for 1-2 weeks. A "rapid test" is available for screening. It produces quick results, usually within 5 to 30 minutes.
How accurate are HIV test results?
The tests are more than 99% accurate. The most commonly used tests are the ELISA and the Western blot. If the ELISA shows the blood sample is positive for HIV, then the Western blot is done to confirm that initial result.
How do I interpret HIV test results?
A seropositive result on an HIV test means that HIV antibodies are present in your bloodstream and you are HIV-positive. The onset of AIDS may take up to 10 or more years. Drug treatments are available that can further delay the development of AIDS.
A seronegative result usually indicates that you are not infected with HIV. However, you should be re-tested in six months if you have engaged in high-risk behavior during the past six months because it can take this long for your immune system to produce enough antibodies.
What are the benefits of counseling?
An HIV/AIDS counselor can provide emotional support and help interpret test results. If you learn you are HIV-positive, the counselor can explain treatment options, discuss lifestyle factors that can help keep you healthy longer and advise on methods to avoid spreading HIV to others.
If you learn you are HIV-negative, an HIV/AIDS counselor can advise on strategies to avoid future infection.
Counseling can be provided either in person or over the telephone.
Who should be tested?
Testing and counseling for early diagnosis of HIV infection are recommended for the following people:
Why does the CDC recommend that all pregnant women be tested for HIV?
There are now medical therapies that lower the chance of an HIV-infected pregnant woman passing HIV to her infant before and during birth. Zidovudine (also known as ZDV, AZT or Retrovir) is used to reduce perinatal transmission. Another, less expensive drug, nevirapine, looks very promising in clinical trials. It is important to ask your health care provider about the most effective treatment options for you.
If I test HIV-negative, does that mean that my partner is also HIV- negative?
No. Your HIV test results reveal only your HIV status. Because HIV is not necessarily transmitted every time there is an exposure, your HIV test does not reveal whether or not your partner is infected. Your partner must also be tested. Testing should never be used in place of protecting yourself from infection.
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This article was provided by American Association for World Health. It is a part of the publication Be a Force for Change.