HIV Testing Overview
What Can You Expect When You Get an HIV Test?
There are many ways to get tested for HIV. Your HIV testing experience might differ depending on where you get tested and the types of tests offered at a particular location.
HIV Testing in a Health Care Setting or Lab
If you take a test in a health care setting or a lab, a health care provider or lab technician will take a sample of your blood or oral fluid. If it’s a rapid test done by taking oral fluid or by pricking your finger for a few drops of blood, you may be able to wait for the results. If it’s a blood sample that goes to a lab, it can take several days for your results to be available. Your health care provider or counselor may talk with you about your HIV risk factors, answer any questions, and discuss the next steps with you, especially if your rapid test result is positive.
- If your test comes back negative, and you haven’t had an exposure during the window period for the test you took, you can be confident you don’t have HIV. You can take actions to prevent HIV, such as using pre-exposure prophylaxis.
- If your oral swab or finger prick test is positive, it will need to be followed up with a blood sample to confirm the results.
- If that confirmatory blood sample test result is positive, the lab will conduct follow-up tests. If you receive a positive test result, you can take medicine to treat HIV (called antiretroviral therapy or ART), which protects your health and prevents transmission to others. You may be able to start treatment the same day you get your test result.
HIV Testing in a Community-Based Setting
If you get an HIV test outside of a health care setting or lab—such as at a community-based organization, mobile testing van, or elsewhere—you will likely receive a rapid HIV test.
- If your test result is negative, and you haven’t had a possible exposure during the previous three months, you can be confident you don’t have HIV.
- If your test result is positive, you should go to a health care provider or clinic for follow-up testing. Counselors providing the initial test should be able to answer your questions and provide referrals for follow-up testing. You can use the HIV.gov locator to find a health center near you.
Is HIV Self-Testing an Option?
Yes. HIV self-testing allows people to take an HIV test and find out their result in their home or other private location. There are two kinds:
- A Rapid Self-Test is done entirely at home or in a private location, and results are ready in as little as 20 minutes. You can buy a rapid self-test kit at a pharmacy or online. Or you can order a free HIV self-test through CDC’s Together Take Me HomeExit Disclaimer initiative, subject to availability. The only rapid self-test currently available in the U.S. is an oral fluid testExit Disclaimer. Read the instructions included in the test kit before you start. A phone number is included with the HIV self-test if you need help using the test.
- A Mail-In Self-Test includes a specimen collection kit that contains supplies to collect dried blood from a fingerstick at home. The sample is then sent to a lab for testing, and a health care provider provides the results. You can order a mail-in self-test online. Some health care providers can also order a mail-in self-test for you.
Check to see if your local health department or an HIV service organization near you provides rapid self-tests for a reduced cost or for free. HIV self-tests and mail-in HIV tests may be covered by insurance. Be sure to check with your insurance provider and your health care provider about reimbursement for tests you purchase.
Note: State laws regarding self-testing vary and may limit availability. Check with your provider for additional testing options.
Can an HIV Test Detect the Virus Immediately After Exposure?
No HIV test can detect HIV immediately after exposure, including a blood test. This is because of the window period—the time between when a person gets HIV and when an HIV test can accurately detect it. The window period varies from person to person and also depends on the type of HIV test performed. Some tests can detect HIV sooner than others. (See image below.)
If you think you’ve been exposed to HIV in the last 72 hours, talk to your health care provider about post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), immediately.
Types of HIV Tests and Their Window Periods
There are three types of HIV tests: nucleic acid tests (NAT), antigen/antibody tests, and antibody tests, and they all have different window periods:
- Nucleic Acid Test (NAT)—A NAT can usually tell if you have HIV infection 10 to 33 days after exposure. It is performed by a lab on blood from your vein.
- Antigen/Antibody Test—An antigen/antibody test performed by a laboratory on blood from your vein can usually detect HIV infection 18 to 45 days after exposure. An antigen/antibody test done with blood from a finger prick takes longer to detect HIV (18 to 90 days after an exposure).
- Antibody Test—An antibody test can usually detect HIV infection 23 to 90 days after an exposure. Most rapid tests and self-tests are antibody tests. In general, antibody tests that use blood from a vein detect HIV sooner after infection than tests done with blood from a finger prick or with oral fluid.
Ask your health care provider or HIV testing counselor about the window period for your test and whether you will need a follow-up test to confirm the results. If you’re using a self-test, you can get that information from the materials included in the test’s package.
If you get an HIV test after a potential HIV exposure and the result is negative, get tested again after the window period. Remember, you can only be sure you are HIV-negative if:
- Your most recent test is after the window period.
- You haven’t had a potential HIV exposure during the window period. If you have had a new potential exposure, then you will need to be retested.
What If You Can’t Pay for Your HIV Test?
As required by the Affordable Care Act, HIV screening is covered by health insurance without a co-pay. If you don’t have health insurance, some testing sites, health centers, or local health departments may offer free tests. Use CDC’s Get Tested to search for free testing resources.