An HIV test is a test to find out if you’ve contracted human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The most common test used for this purpose is the HIV antibody test. Antibodies are the immune system’s response to HIV. Antibodies develop a few weeks after exposure. The time between being exposed to HIV and when a test can detect the antibodies is called a ‘window period’. The window period for laboratory tests is up to 6 weeks, and for rapid tests up to 12 weeks. During this period the accuracy of the result cannot be guaranteed.
A conventional test for HIV involves providing blood drawn from a vein in your arm, which is then sent to a laboratory for testing. If the test result is positive it means you have HIV. Results take about one week.
Depending on the clinic, you will either be required to return to receive the test result in person, or you may be offered the result by other methods, such as phone, SMS or email.
A rapid HIV test is a newer kind of test that gives you a result in 30 minutes. Most rapid HIV tests use blood from a finger prick, while some use oral fluid. A ‘reactive’ (or preliminary positive) result on a rapid HIV test is not a diagnosis of HIV infection. For this reason, a reactive rapid HIV test result needs to be confirmed by conventional laboratory tests.
There are various HIV tests available for purchase on the internet and these vary in quality. It is recommended that you only use reputable, high-quality tests if you do purchase online. For further advice contact your local AIDS Council.
All gay men who think they are HIV negative should be tested for HIV at least once a year. More frequent testing—up to four times per year—is recommended if you do any of the following:
- have any sex without condoms
- have more than 10 sexual partners in six months
- participate in group sex
- use recreational drugs during sex.
Whenever you get tested for HIV you should also ask to get tested for other STIs.
Before having the test you will need to have a face-to-face discussion with your doctor or health care worker about the following:
- What the test means including the implications of a positive result or a negative result.
- Your behaviour since your last test to determine how likely it is you may have been exposed to HIV.
- Your understanding of HIV, how it is transmitted and how to protect yourself.
- The support services available after you get your result.
- The ‘window period’ of the test you are taking and if you need to be retested.
Some clinics offer an express service where you enter some of this information directly on a computer before seeing the health care provider.
HIV tests can be conducted in clinics (sometimes called ‘point-of-care’ for rapid tests) as well as some community-based services.
Sexual health centres provide anonymous HIV testing. HIV testing in sexual health centres, and community-based services is also more likely to be available free of charge.
For further information about HIV and STI testing and to register for a sexual health check-up reminder go to www.timetotest.org.au