HIV Testing

Because HIV symptoms are often not present upon infection with the HIV virus, it is important that you go for HIV testing if you think or know you have been exposed to the virus.

Although referred to as an AIDS test or an HIV test, tests done to assess whether you are HIV positive or negative actually measure the level of HIV antibodies in your system. If HIV antibodies are found in your system, you are considered to be HIV positive. The absence of HIV antibodies means that you are HIV negative and most likely not infected with the virus.

When you are infected with HIV, your immune system begins to produce antibodies to fight off the infection. However, it can take anywhere from three weeks to three months before your body produces enough antibodies to be detected on a test. In some cases it may even take as much as six months before any antibodies are present.

Because it can take HIV antibodies a while to show up in your system, it is usually recommended that you wait until three months after a possible exposure before being tested. Alternatively, you can be tested three weeks after possible exposure and, if you receive a negative result the first time, test again three months later.

The time between HIV infection and the detectable presence of HIV antibodies is known as the HIV window period. Although you may not be aware of an infection, or have done an early HIV test that produced a negative result, during the window period you are still considered to be very contagious and can transmit the HIV virus.

What Happens During an HIV Test
The most common type of HIV test in adults is an HIV antibody test. For this test, a sample of your blood is taken and sent to a lab for analysis. The test can be performed at a doctor's office, public health office, family planning clinic or some other special facility set up for HIV testing. Depending on where you live and the type of establishment you go to, you may be able to get free HIV testing. In the United States, it is also possible to test for the HIV virus through a sample of your mouth fluids, urine or cheek scrapings.

The antibody test is about 99.5% accurate. Results of the test can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to come back. However, a new type of test, known as the Rapid HIV Test, has been in use for a few years now. These tests can give you your results in 10 to 30 minutes. While these rapid tests are generally quite accurate, results may sometimes need to be confirmed through a second laboratory test.

A home HIV test has also recently become available in some parts of the world. However, these kits do not actually test for HIV. Instead, they allow an individual to collect a sample of their own blood in the privacy of their home and then send the sample into a lab. They will be contacted a few days later with their results. While these kits are convenient for those who want to remain anonymous, an HIV home test is not legal everywhere.

HIV Testing and Infants
It is also possible to test specifically for the HIV virus. Although this type of blood test can provide a positive result sooner than an antibody test, it is much more expensive as well as slightly less accurate than the antibody test. While this test is generally not used on adults, it is commonly used on newborns.

Because a baby inherits her mother's antibodies before birth and has them in her system for many months after, testing an infant for HIV antibodies would always produce a positive result, even if the child is not infected with HIV. Although parents can choose to wait until their baby is 18 months or older before they test, it is generally advised that a baby born to an HIV positive mother be tested for the virus much sooner than this. Therefore, a blood test that detects the HIV virus itself is performed.

Many people are worried about the confidentiality of their HIV and AIDS testing. While it is possible to have an anonymous test done, if you are HIV positive, the results do need to be reported to the proper agencies who keep track of people infected with HIV and AIDS.

If you have anonymous HIV testing done, you will be given a number or code to identify which test is yours. Your name will not be used and the information will not be given to your health care provider. If you have confidential testing done, your name will be used but only those who deal with your medical records will be aware of the results.

If you are displaying any symptoms of HIV, think or know you have been exposed to the HIV virus, it is recommended that you get tested for HIV. It is best to be tested in a facility that also offers HIV/AIDS counseling.

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