About 1.2 million people in the United States are HIV positive and 14 percent of those people don’t know it according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.) That means there are 168,000 people walking around who aren’t aware of the possibility that they could develop AIDS.
Should I get tested if I am not at risk?
The CDC recommends testing, whether or not you are at risk, at two times.
- Everyone should be tested at least one time in their life. The CDC recommends every person, between the ages of 13 and 64, should have at least one HIV screening test.
- The CDC recommends that all women who are pregnant be screened for HIV during the first trimester, and if positive, receive treatment to decrease the chance of passing HIV to your child.
Even though you might not think you are at risk for HIV, it is important to be tested. Some people who don’t believe they are high-risk have still tested positive. This might be because a partner that you trusted might have been HIV positive without knowing it. Besides unprotected sex, risk factors can include:
- Having sex with someone who was previously an IV drug user?
- Having sex with someone who is HIV positive, even if he or she doesn’t know.
- Having a sexually transmitted disease.
- Being sexually assaulted.
- Sharing needles.
- Receiving a blood transfusion (the risk for this in the U.S. is low, however, having a blood transfusion in a different country might increase your risk)
- Your mother was HIV positive when pregnant with you.
When can I forego testing?
If you and your partner have both been tested for HIV and are negative (at least three to six months after your last sexual encounter) and you are in a monogamous relationship, you probably don’t need to continue to get tested on a regular basis. However, if one, or both of you, have sex outside the relationship, you should request HIV screening.
What will put me at risk for HIV?
Certain behaviors will increase your risk for HIV:
- Having sex (vaginal or anal) sex without a condom, including sexual assault
- Sharing injection needles
How often should I be tested?
Most of the time, HIV shows up within three months of a high-risk behavior. In some rare cases, the antibodies don’t show up for up to six months. Your doctor will be able to tell you whether you should have a follow up screening at six months.
If you engage in unsafe sex practices, you should have HIV screening done on an annual basis. More frequent testing, such as every three to six months, is recommended for some populations, such as sexually active gay and bisexual men.
How reliable are screening tests?
HIV screening tests are completed either on blood or oral fluids. Blood tests can detect HIV antibodies sooner than oral fluids. Some types of blood tests can detect the antibodies about three weeks after infection.
Rapid test results are usually available within 30 minutes. These types of tests use either blood or oral fluids to test for HIV antibodies. If the test results are negative and you haven’t engaged in any risk behaviors for three months, the test can be considered accurate. If the test shows positive, you will be asked to go for follow up testing.
There are also home testing kits. Some require you to collect and send a blood sample to a licensed laboratory. You can then call for the results the next business day. If your sample tested positive, follow up tests are completed immediately and you will receive these results when you call as well. Another type is a rapid test you perform at home, with results available in 20 minutes. This type uses oral fluids and because the antibodies are not detected as quickly in these fluids, some people (about 1 out of every 12 people) do receive false negatives.
Another type of test, called an RNA test, can detect the HIV virus within 10 days of infection. This test is more expensive and is not usually used as a first-line screening test but might be used as a follow up test.
Does health insurance pay for HIV testing?
The Affordable Care Act requires that health insurance companies pay for HIV screening without a copayment. If you don’t have health insurance, there are places you can go for free screening tests. The National HIV and STD Testing Resources provides a searchable database (based on your zip code) of places where you can receive free testing.
“HIV/AIDS Testing,” Staff Writer, Updated 2015, June 30, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
“HIV Testing Frequency,” Staff Writer, Revised 2015, June 5, Aids.gov
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.