Around 1 in 8 Americans who are living with HIV don’t know it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Finding out your HIV status allows you to begin treatments that could extend your life and protect your partner(s) from getting infected.
The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 years old get tested at least once. You should get tested regularly if you have unprotected sex, have sex with multiple partners, or inject drugs.
When to test
There’s a window of two to eight weeks in which your immune system starts making antibodies against the HIV virus after exposure. Most HIV tests look for these antibodies.
You may get a negative test result within the first three months of being exposed to HIV. To confirm your status, you should get tested again at the end of the three-month period.
You once had to go to a doctor’s office, hospital, or community health center to get tested for HIV. Now there are options for taking an HIV test in the privacy of your own home.
The OraQuick In-Home HIV Test and Home Access HIV-1 Test System have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Both are sold at drugstores, but you need to be at least 17 years old to purchase them. Other home tests are available in the United States, but they have not been FDA-approved and may be inaccurate or unsafe.
Tests that have been approved for HIV home testing outside of the United States include:
- BioSure HIV Self Test: This test is only available in the United Kingdom, meets European quality standards (has CE marking), and uses your blood to test for HIV in about 15 minutes.
- Autotest VIH: This test is only available in France, meets European quality standards (has CE marking), and uses blood from your fingertip to test for HIV.
These tests use similar tools and methods to test for HIV, but have not been FDA-approved for use in the United States. Using tests that aren’t FDA-approved can be risky and may not provide accurate results.
A 2016 study reported a new testing option that can provide blood test results in fewer than 30 minutes using a USB stick and a drop of blood. It’s the result of a collaborative effort by Imperial College London and the technology company DNA Electronics. This test hasn’t been released to the general public yet or been approved by the FDA. However, it has shown promising results in initial experiments, with testing accuracy measured at around 95 percent.
Each home test works a little differently.
For the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test:
- Swab the inside of your mouth.
- Place the swab in a tube with a developing solution.
Results are available in 20 to 40 minutes. If one line appears, the test is negative. Two lines mean you may be positive. You’ll need a follow-up test from a lab to be sure.
Home Access HIV-1 Test System
For the Home Access HIV-1 Test System:
- Prick your finger and collect a sample of your blood on a special piece of paper.
- Send the sample to a lab. You’ll be given a PIN number so that your results remain anonymous.
The lab will test the sample. Afterward, you’ll receive a phone number to call a few days later to retrieve your results. Counseling over the phone is also available if you need it.
Finding a lab
Finding a reliable, licensed lab is important to ensuring that your sample gets you accurate test results. To find a lab for your sample in the United States:
- Go to https://gettested.cdc.gov to enter your location and find a lab or clinic near you.
- Call 1-800-232-4636 (1-800-CDC-INFO).
- Send a text message with your 5-digit ZIP code to 566948 (KNOW IT).
These resources can also help you get tested for other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Home tests are an accurate way to test for HIV. However, they may take longer than tests performed at a doctor’s office to detect the virus after you’ve been exposed.
HIV levels in saliva are lower than HIV levels in the blood. As a result, the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test may not detect HIV as quickly after infection as a blood test would.
HIV is much easier to control and treat if you identify it and seek treatment during the early stages of infection. Home HIV tests allow you to receive results almost immediately (sometimes within minutes) without having to wait for a doctor’s appointment or taking time out of your schedule to visit a lab.
Early identification is essential for successful long-term treatment and survival with HIV. Home tests empower you to learn whether or not you have the virus earlier than any other testing methods, and this can help you limit the virus’s effect on you. Early identification can also protect those around you from getting the virus (even people you don’t know, as your sexual partners could potentially spread it to others).
Early symptoms of HIV
In the first couple of months after you’ve been infected with HIV, you’ll notice symptoms similar to that of the flu. They include:
- pain in the muscles and joints
- neck swelling around the lymph nodes
HIV can spread rapidly during the early stages of infection, which is known as primary infection (or acute HIV). If you notice these symptoms after having unprotected sex or a blood transfusion, take an HIV test to see if HIV is the cause.
If you get a negative test result and it’s been more than three months since you may have been exposed, you can be very certain that you don’t have HIV.
If it has been less than three months since exposure, take another HIV test at the end of the three-month period to be sure. During that time, practice safe sex by using a condom, and don’t share needles.
If you get a positive result, the lab should retest your sample to make sure it wasn’t inaccurate. A positive result on the follow-up test means that you have HIV.
See your doctor as soon as possible to discuss your treatment options. Your doctor can get you started on antiretroviral therapy, which is medication that helps stop the HIV infection from progressing.
Make sure that you practice safe sex, using condoms or dental dams with any and all sexual partners, and refrain from sharing needles.
Seeing a therapist or joining a support group, whether in person or online, can help you cope with the emotions and health issues that come with an HIV diagnosis. Dealing with HIV can be stressful and difficult to discuss with even your closest friends and family. Speaking privately with a therapist or being part of a community made up of others with the same medical condition can help you understand how to lead a healthy, active life after diagnosis.
Seeking out additional help from social workers or counselors associated with HIV or AIDS clinics can also help you deal with issues related to treatment. They can help you navigate scheduling, transportation, finances, and more.
Home tests for other STDs
You can test yourself for other STDs, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, using home testing kits. These tests usually consist of taking a urine sample or a swab from your genital area to a lab facility for testing.
Repeat the test if you received negative results but are experiencing STD symptoms, or see your doctor to get tested again to ensure that the results are accurate.