What Can You Expect When You Go in for an HIV Test?
Your HIV testing experience might be a little different depending on where you get tested.
HIV Testing in a Health Care Setting or Lab
If you get a test in a health care setting or a lab, a health care provider or lab technician will take your sample (blood or oral fluid). If it’s a rapid test, you may be able to wait for the results, but if it’s a laboratory test, it can take several days for your results to be available. Your health care provider or counselor may talk with you about your risk factors, answer any questions you might have, and discuss next steps with you, especially if your result is positive.
- If the 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.
- If your HIV test result is positive, the lab will conduct follow-up testing, usually on the same sample as the first.
HIV Testing Outside of a Health Care Setting or Lab
If you are tested 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 (oral fluid or finger stick.)
- If the test comes back negative, and you haven’t had a possible exposure during the previous 3 months, you can be confident you don’t have HIV.
- If your test result is positive, you should go to a health care provider to get follow-up testing. Counselors providing the test should be able to answer questions and provide referrals for follow-up testing as well. You can use the HIV.gov locator to find a testing location near you.
Is Self-Testing an Option?
Yes. HIV self-testing allows people to take an HIV test and find out their result in their own home or other private location. You can buy a self-test kit at a pharmacy or online, or your health care provider may be able to order one for you. Some health departments or community-based organizations also provide self-test kits for free.
Read the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) fact sheet on the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test, the only FDA-approved in-home HIV test.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has made it more difficult for some people to access traditional places where HIV testing is provided. Self-testing allows people to get tested for HIV while still following stay-at-home orders and social distancing practices. Ask your local health department or HIV service organization if they offer self-testing kits.
How Soon After Exposure to HIV Can an HIV Test Detect If You Are Infected?
No HIV test can detect HIV immediately after infection. 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), right away.
The time between when a person gets HIV and when a test can accurately detect it is called the window period. The window period varies from person to person and also depends upon the type of HIV test.
Types of HIV Tests and Their Window Periods
- Nucleic Acid Test (NAT)—This test looks for the actual virus in the blood and involves drawing blood from your vein. The test can either tell if you have HIV or tell how much virus is present in your blood (known as an HIV viral load test). While a NAT can detect HIV sooner than other types of tests, this test is very expensive and not routinely used for screening individuals unless they recently had a high-risk exposure or a possible exposure and have early symptoms of HIV infection. A NAT can usually tell you if you have HIV infection 10 to 33 days after exposure.
- Antigen/Antibody Test—This test looks for both HIV antibodies and antigens. Antibodies are produced by your immune system when you’re exposed to viruses like HIV. Antigens are foreign substances that cause your immune system to activate. If you have HIV, an antigen called p24 is produced even before antibodies develop. Antigen/antibody tests are recommended for testing done in labs and are now common in the United States.The lab test involves drawing blood from a vein. There is also a rapid antigen/antibody test available that is done with a finger prick. An antigen/antibody test performed by a lab on blood from a 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—This test only looks for antibodies to HIV in your blood or oral fluid. Most rapid tests and the only currently approved HIV self-test are antibody tests. An antibody test can take 23 to 90 days to detect HIV infection after an exposure. 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 test counselor about the window period for the test you’re getting 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 do have an exposure, then you will need to be retested.
How Much Does an HIV Test Cost?
HIV screening is covered by health insurance without a co-pay, as required by the Affordable Care Act. If you do not have health insurance, some testing sites may offer HIV tests on a sliding fee scale or provide free tests. See HIV Testing Locations for information about finding a testing site or other HIV services near you.