June 27, 2011 is National HIV Testing Day -- and you know you should get tested for HIV in order to get early access to life-saving care.
But how? And where? And is it painful?
Here are the answers to 11 commonly asked questions about HIV testing, according to David Forrest, Ph.D., a research assistant professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, and Lisa Metsch, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and public health at the university.
1. Where can I get tested?
HIV testing is commonly available at community health clinics, the state and local health department and hospitals. You can also ask your doctor to administer a test (or pediatrician for adolescent HIV tests). In some communities, HIV testing is also available at dentist offices and local pharmacies.
2. How expensive are tests?
They can range in price, but many places offer them for free. In Florida, for instance, the actual HIV test is commonly free, unless it is a blood-draw test that also tests for other sexually transmitted diseases, like syphilis and gonorrhea. Tests that provide results shortly after infection may also cost more than ones that require you to wait awhile after you've been infected to see if you're really positive.
3. What are the tests like, anyway?
Most HIV tests are simple, fast and relatively painless. There is a finger-jab test, where the tester will use a lance-like tool to draw just a couple drops of blood. There is also a cheek-swab test, where the tester swabs the cheek for a specified amount of time. It's also possible to get blood drawn, where your doctor can test for a battery of diseases, not just HIV.
4. How long do I have to actually be HIV positive for the test to recognize it?
It depends on the test, but at least for some of the commonly used finger-jab tests, there is a three-month window after the initial infection with HIV. However, there are other, newer HIV tests that can provide results within 10 to 14 days. It just depends on the type of test you use, and how much you are willing to spend on the test to get the fast results.
5. Are the finger-jab tests painful?
No. It is like a small needle pricking the finger, and most people barely even feel it.
6. Is there such thing as a "false positive" for HIV?
The first step of an HIV test is actually called a "preliminary reactive test." HIV positivity, among other factors, could induce a positive reactive result. If you get a positive reactive result, you then need to get a second test to see if you are confirmed HIV positive.
7. If I think I got infected just a few weeks ago, and I go to take the test and it comes back negative, does that mean I'm off the hook?
Generally, no. Because the window period for many rapid tests is up to three months, your HIV test administrator will likely encourage you to come back to be tested again, to be safe.
8. How long will the test take?
Some rapid result tests, like the finger-jab test, take 20 minutes. There are also other tests recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration that provide instantaneous results, though those tests are not as easy to obtain as the other rapid result tests.
9. Does a doctor have to administer the test?
No, but the person administering the test does have to be trained in how to give the test, as well as how to counsel the person taking the test.
10. What is the counseling like?
HIV test administrators are trained to help you figure out what to do if your initial screening test comes back positive, and how to move forward with getting the confirmatory test done. They are also trained to help you decide what to do if the initial screening test comes back negative (for example, they may encourage you to come back in to be screened again at a later date, or they may discuss risky lifestyle choices that put you at risk in the first place). They can also help you figure out what to do if your second test comes back positive.
11. Is it possible for other people to find out that I got tested for HIV?
If your testing center offers anonymous testing, then no. Your testing information is treated as any other private medical information -- completely private to just you and your doctor.