Understanding HIV Test Results

Content From: CDC’s HIV BasicsUpdated: June 16, 20228 min read


What Do Your HIV Test Results Mean?

If you’ve just had an HIV test, you may be wondering what a positive or negative test result means. If you were tested in a health care provider’s office, a clinic, or a community setting, the provider or testing counselor will explain what your result means and talk to you about the next steps. If you used a rapid HIV self-test at home or another private location, the package materials will provide this information, along with a phone number you can call.

Below are answers to some of the most common questions.

What If Your HIV Test Result Is Negative?

If your HIV test result is negative, it doesn't necessarily mean you don't have HIV. That's because of the window period—the time between when a person gets HIV and when a test can accurately detect it. The window period varies from person to person and depends on the type of HIV test you take.

Ask your health care provider or testing counselor about the window period for the type of HIV test you’re taking. If you’re using a self-test, you can find that information in the test package.

If your test result is negative, get tested again after the window period to be sure. If your test result is negative again, and you have had no possible HIV exposure during the window period, then you do not have HIV.

What’s next? Now is a good time to think about your HIV prevention options. If you’re sexually active or use needles to inject drugs, continue to take actions to prevent HIV, like taking pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP (medicines to prevent HIV) if you’re at high risk or using condoms the right way every time you have sex.

If you have certain risk factors for HIV, you should continue to get tested at least once a year. Learn more about who is at risk for HIV and why they should be tested more often.

If You Have a Negative Test Result, Does that Mean that Your Partner Is HIV-Negative Also?

No. Your HIV test result reveals only your HIV status.

HIV is not necessarily transmitted every time you have sex or share needles, syringes, or other drug injection equipment. And the risk of getting HIV varies depending on the type of exposure or behavior. Therefore, taking an HIV test is not a way to find out if your partner has HIV.

It's important to be open with your partner(s) and ask them to tell you their HIV status. But keep in mind that your partner(s) may not know or may be wrong about their status, and some may not tell you if they have HIV even if they are aware of their status. Consider getting tested together so you can both know your HIV status and take steps to keep yourselves healthy.

What If Your Test Result Is Positive?

Most HIV tests are antibody tests. If you use any type of antibody test and have a positive test result, you will need a follow-up test to confirm the results.

  • If you had a rapid screening test at a community testing program or other location, the testing site will arrange a follow-up test to make sure your initial test result was correct.
  • If you used a self-testing kit at home, you should go to a health care provider for a follow-up test. A positive HIV test result must always be confirmed by additional HIV testing performed in a health care setting.
  • If you had a blood test in a health care setting or a lab, the lab will conduct a follow-up test on the same blood sample as the first test.

If your follow-up test is also positive, it means you have HIV.

After you are diagnosed with HIV, your health care provider's office or clinic will provide post-test counselling to help you understand the next steps, including the importance of starting HIV treatment as soon as possible. HIV treatment involves taking highly effective medicines (called antiretroviral therapy or ART) that work to control the virus. ART is recommended for all people with HIV, regardless of how long they’ve had the virus or how healthy they are.

If taken as prescribed, HIV medicine can reduce the amount of HIV in your blood (also called your viral load) to a very low level. This is called viral suppression. If your viral load is so low that a standard lab can’t detect it, this is called having an undetectable viral load. People with HIV who take HIV medicine as prescribed and get and keep an undetectable viral load can live long and healthy lives and will not transmit HIV to their HIV-negative partners through sex.

If you have health insurance, your insurer is required to cover some medicines used to treat HIV. If you don’t have health insurance or you need help because your insurance doesn’t pay for the treatment you need, there are state, federal, and private resources that may help you.

To lower your risk of transmitting HIV:

  • Take HIV medicine as prescribed so that you get and keep an undetectable viral load.
  • If you do not have an undetectable viral load, use condoms the right way every time you have sex.
  • If your partner is HIV-negative, encourage them to talk to their health care provider to see if pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is right for them. PrEP is medicine people at risk for HIV take to prevent getting HIV from sex or injection drug use.
  • If you think your partner might have been recently exposed to HIV—for example, if a condom breaks during sex and you do not have an undetectable viral load—they should talk to a health care provider right away (no later than 72 hours) about taking post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, which is a short course of HIV medicines taken very soon after a possible exposure to HIV to prevent the virus from taking hold in the body.
  • Get tested and treated for STDs and encourage your partner to do the same.

Receiving a diagnosis of HIV can be a life-changing event. People can feel many emotions—sadness, hopelessness, and even anger. Allied health care providers and social service providers can help you work through the early stages of your diagnosis and begin to manage your HIV.

Talking to others who have HIV may also be helpful. Find a local HIV support group. Learn about how other people living with HIV have handled their diagnosis.

You can view stories and testimonials of how people are staying adherent to their HIV treatment and living well with HIV by visiting HIV.gov’s Positive Spin.

Will Other People Know Your Test Result?

If you take an anonymous test, no one but you will know the result. If you take a confidential test, your test result will be part of your medical record, but it will still be protected by state and federal privacy laws. Most HIV testing is done confidentially.

  • Anonymous testing means that nothing ties your test results to you. When you take an anonymous HIV test, you get a unique identifier that allows you to get your test results. Anonymous tests are not available at every place that provides HIV testing. You can purchase a self-test if you want to test anonymously.
  • Confidential testing means that your name and other identifying information will be attached to your test results. The results will go in your medical record and may be shared with your health care providers and your health insurance company. Otherwise, the results are protected by state and federal privacy laws, and they can be released only with your permission.

With confidential testing, if you test positive for HIV, the test result and your name will be reported to the state or local health department to help public health officials get better estimates of the rates of HIV in the state. The state health department will then remove all personal information about you (name, address, etc.) and share the remaining non-identifying information with CDC. CDC does not share this information with anyone else, including insurance companies.

As a follow up to a positive HIV test, your local health department may contact you to make sure that you received your test result and understood it, to find out whether you were referred to HIV medical care and social services, and to see whether you have received HIV medical care and treatment.

The health department representative may talk with you about the need to tell your current and former sexual or needle-sharing partner(s) about their possible exposure to HIV. Doing so allows your partners to make decisions that can protect their health. In some states, there are lawsExit Disclaimer that require you to share your HIV status with your sex or injection partners.

The health department representative may offer partner services to assist you with these conversations. Through partner services, health department staff will try attempt to locate any or all of your partners to let them know they may have been exposed to HIV. They will help them find a place to get tested, give them information about PrEP, PEP, and other HIV prevention methods, and help them access counselling or other services. For partners who test positive, health department staff will provide linkage to HIV treatment and care.

If you are HIV-positive, it is also important to disclose your HIV status to your health care providers (doctors, dentists, etc.) so that they can give you the best possible care. Sharing your status with anyone else is your choice. Learn more about telling others.