|How quickly after possible HIV exposure should I get tested?
As HIV has no symptoms the only way to find out if you've been infected is to be tested. The way that HIV tests work is that it looks for antibodies of the virus in your blood.
Unfortunately, it takes between two weeks and six months for those antibodies to show up after infection. Sometimes it even takes longer than six months but this is fairly rare.
Doctors now recommend getting tested as soon as you think you have been exposed. Some testing sites may also recommend getting tested again after 3 months and 6 months, just to be 100% sure of the results.
It is important to act responsibly during this window before you get tested. Continue to practice safer sex and do not share needles.
What is the HIV test?
There are several HIV tests.
In one, blood will be drawn from your arm and sent to a lab where an ELISA test will be performed. The ELISA test looks for the HIV antibody in your blood. If it is positive, it is repeated, and if that second test is also positive, then a third, more sensitive test called the Western Blot test is performed. If these tests are all positive, then it means you are HIV + and have the HIV antibodies in your blood. It also means you can spread HIV through blood-to-blood, semen to blood, or vaginal fluid to blood contact. This test does not say whether or not a person has AIDS.
A negative test result means the body has not produced antibodies to HIV. If the person receiving a negative test result has not placed him or herself at risk in the last six months, then they are not infected. If the person has placed him or herself at risk during the last six months, they will need to be tested again before they will know for sure.
There are also some other HIV tests. The oral fluid tests use oral fluid (not saliva) that is collected from the mouth using a special collection device. This is an EIA antibody test similar to the standard blood test described above.
A rapid test is a screening test that produces very quick results, in approximately 10 to 20 minutes. Rapid tests use blood from a vein or from a finger prick, or oral fluid, to look for the presence of antibodies to HIV. The Red Ribbon project uses the rapid finger prick or oral fluid test for its testing days.
Consumer-controlled test kits (popularly known as "home testing kits") were first licensed in 1997. Although home HIV tests are sometimes advertised through the Internet, currently only the Home Access HIV-1 Test System is approved by the Food and Drug Administration. (The accuracy of other home test kits cannot be verified.) The Home Access HIV-1 Test System can be found at most local drug stores. It is not a true home test, but a home collection kit. The testing procedure involves pricking a finger with a special device, placing drops of blood on a specially treated card, and then mailing the card in to be tested at a licensed laboratory. Customers are given an identification number to use when phoning in for the results. Callers may speak to a counselor before taking the test, while waiting for the test result, and when the results are given. All individuals receiving a positive test result are provided referrals for a follow-up confirmatory test, as well as information and resources on treatment and support services.
RNA tests look for genetic material of the virus and can be used in screening the blood supply and for detection of rare very early infection cases when antibody tests are unable to detect antibodies to HIV.
Finally, there is also a urine-based test. A physician can only order this test.
In all cases, a Western Blot test will need to be taken if you get a positive result from any of these tests to confirm the accuracy of the results.
For a list of HIV tests that are FDA-approved, visit: http://www.fda.gov/cber/products/testkits.htm
What is the difference between confidential and anonymous testing?
In Colorado, a person can be tested for HIV antibodies either confidentially or anonymously.
If you are tested confidentially, it means you will need to use a name. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment keeps confidential records for two years of all people who are tested. The individuals who test positive will be contacted by the Health Department to participate in the Partner Notification Program. This program is voluntary and is designed to stop the spread of HIV by asking the positive person to name past and present sexual partners, or partners using injection drugs so that the state can attempt to contact them and encourage them to be tested. Law protects all of this information at this time, and confidentiality is assured. In other words, the state cannot mention a name when contacting the person. The state cannot mention who was tested. These records cannot be accessed by insurance companies, court subpoena or law enforcement at this time. Only those within the Health Department with a need to know, such as those who work in the Partner Notification Program, have access to these records.
In some ways, the records kept by the state are safer than those kept in a doctor’s office. If a person has an HIV test through their private physician, it becomes part of his or her medical record. If that person decides to change insurance, the new insurance company would want to check his or her past medical records for what is generally known as a “pre-existing condition.” If they find such a condition, like cancer or heart disease, or in this case HIV, they may exclude it from coverage.
If a person takes an anonymous test, they do not have to give a name. You are given a unique number and the test results are given under that number. No one, not even the state, can trace those results back to a specific person. The results are reported to the state simply as positive or negative. However, if the test results are positive, you may be asked to participate in the Partner Notification Program, which is voluntary. The Denver County Health Department, the Boulder County Health Department and the Northeast Colorado Health Department offer anonymous testing.
What if I test positive for HIV?
Although HIV can’t be cured, it can be managed. If you test positive for HIV it is not a death sentence. With the right care, medicine and awareness the virus can be kept from rapidly growing in the body, slowing its damage to the immune system.
The first step you should take is to see a doctor, even if you do not feel sick. There are now many drugs to treat HIV infection and help you maintain your health. These drugs are called anti-retroviral and protease inhibitors. Many people also get an antibiotic, which will prevent pneumonia, as HIV is an autoimmune disease, which means it attacks your immune system, making you more susceptible to other diseases.
What are the complications of untreated HIV infections?
Left untreated, HIV will develop into AIDS. The immune system becomes so worn down it isn’t able to fight off common diseases and disorders. The T cell count will drop to below 200, the viral load will increase to over 50,000, and the person will start developing illnesses that are very hard to get rid of. They may get pneumonia, thrush (yeast infections of the mouth, throat, skin or vagina) or a severe flu. They may lose a lot of weight and become extremely tired. They may develop a persistent cough and shortness of breath. Stomach pain and severe diarrhea is also common for a person with AIDS. Old, untreated infections such as tuberculosis, syphilis or herpes can take advantage of a weakened immune system and spread throughout the body, leading to severe illness and death.
Much of this information was collected from the Colorado AIDS Project Website. For more information about HIV and HIV Testing, please visit: http://www.coloradoaidsproject.org/faq.html