Getting Tested for HIV

Getting Tested for HIV


It is beneficial to know your status. Knowledge about your HIV status protects not only you, but also your loved ones. The Centre for Disease Control (CDC) recommends everyone between the age of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV as least once. 

People at higher risk should get tested more often. You should be tested at least once a year if you engage in risky sexual behaviors. If you are pregnant you should talk to your doctor about getting tested for HIV and other ways to protect you and your baby.

Before having sex for the first time with a new partner, you and your partner should talk about your sexual and drug use history, possibly disclose your HIV status, and consider getting tested for HIV together.


What types of tests are available?

There are three types of tests available: nucleic acid tests (NAT), antigen/antibody tests, and antibody tests. HIV tests are typically performed on blood:


  • A nucleic acid test looks for the actual virus in the blood and involves drawing blood from a vein. The test can either tell if a person has HIV or what the viral load is. A NAT can detect HIV if you have had recent exposure to the virus. It is, however, very expensive and not used in regular screening.
  • An antigen/antibody test looks for both HIV antibodies and antigens. Antibodies are proteins produced by your immune system when exposed to viruses. Antigens are foreign substances that cause your immune system to activate. This lab test involves drawing blood from a vein. There is also a rapid antigen/antibody test available that is done with a finger prick. 
  • HIV antibody tests only look for antibodies to HIV in your blood. Most rapid tests and the only currently approved HIV self-test are antibody tests.


Talk to your doctor about what type of HIV test is right for you.

No HIV test can detect HIV immediately after a person gets infected. If you think you’ve been exposed to HIV in the last 72 hours, talk to your doctor about post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), right away. The time between when a person may have been exposed to HIV and when a test can tell for sure whether they have the virus is called the window period. The window period varies from person to person and depends on the type of test used to detect HIV. Ask your doctor or test counselor about the window period for the test you’re taking.

If you get an HIV test after being exposed to HIV and the result is negative, get tested again after the window period. Please note, you can only be sure you are HIV-negative if your most recent test is after the window period or you haven’t had a potential HIV exposure during the window period. If you do have a potential exposure, then you will need to be retested.




Written by Dr Ruusa Shivute | Health Window

Reference: Alexander TS. Human Immunodeficiency Virus Diagnostic Testing: 30 Years of Evolution. Clin Vaccine Immunol. 2016 Apr 4;23(4):249-53

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