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Getting Tested for HIV

Last Updated: December 16, 2011

Here are some common questions and answers about HIV testing. We deliver testing and counseling services within our targeted prevention programs

  1. What should I know about HIV testing?
  2. What are the different types of HIV antibody tests?
  3. Why do some sources advise waiting longer than 6 weeks for HIV testing?

What should I know about HIV testing? 

Testing is the only way to know your status when it comes to HIV. Unlike other infections, most people don’t have symptoms. While testing may sound and feel scary – so does not knowing! These days, it’s pretty simple to get an HIV test at your doctor’s office or at a specialized HIV counseling and testing location. If you don’t know where to go for a test you can find updated testing sites here at www.hivtest.org. 

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What are the different types of HIV antibody tests? 

There are a couple of different types of tests being used to help people determine their HIV status. When people say "HIV test," they are usually referring to a standard antibody test. However, there are several other screening tests used to detect HIV antibodies that you may want to know about:

  1. Standard Test/ELISA: This is the most common HIV antibody test used by most doctors and laboratories and involves a full blood draw which is sent to a laboratory for testing. Results are usually given in 2-10 business days.
  2. OraSure: The OraSure test is perfect for anyone who doesn't like blood. A swab is rubbed between the cheek and lower gum to collect an oral mucosal specimen, which is then sent out for testing. It's recommended that you not eat, drink, smoke, etc., 20 minutes before the test is administered. At the lab, an ELISA (and, if necessary, a Western Blot) is performed on the sample. Results are typically given in 5-10 business days.
  3. Rapid Test: A rapid HIV antibody test provides results within an hour. This test is done by a trained counselor through a finger prick or in some places, an oral swab.  
  4. Home Access: The only FDA approved home collection kit for HIV testing is called Home Access. The kit, costing somewhere between $50-$70, is sold in many large pharmacies (i.e. CVS, Walgreens, etc.), online, and by phone. It involves placing drops of blood onto a card in the kit which is then mailed back for testing. The patient then calls a toll-free number 3-5 business days later, gives the barcode from their testing kit, and receives results. It is an anonymous test, but little to no counseling or support is involved, which is an aspect of testing that many people value. To find out more about Home Access, visit the manufacturer's website here: http://www.homeaccess.com/.

To find a convenient testing site, to talk about testing options, or learn more about the testing process, visit www.hivtest.org.

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Why do some sources advise waiting longer than 6 weeks for HIV testing? 

The time it takes most people to test accurately for HIV is 2-8 weeks after their last risk (the average time is 25 days). In some cases where a person has a highly compromised immune system, such as those in which a person has recently undergone chemotherapy or an organ transplant, it may take 3-6 months for their body to develop enough antibodies to test positive.

However, these are very extreme situations, and other more common conditions such as colds or the flu, diabetes, asthma, and many others, will not affect the body's development of HIV antibodies in that way. Those who suggest window periods longer than 6 weeks are trying to account for all those who may also have compromised immune systems. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommends waiting 3 months for a conclusive test result.

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