HIV Testing: Everything You Need to Know

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HIV, or the human immunodeficiency virus, is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). You can get HIV through contact with an infected person’s body fluids, such as blood or semen. This can happen during sex or by sharing needles used to inject drugs with an infected person. If you are pregnant and have HIV, you can pass the virus to your baby. You can also pass it to your baby by breastfeeding.

Once the HIV virus gets into your blood, it attacks your immune system and causes it to weaken. This leaves you less resistant to fight off diseases and infections. You will be diagnosed with AIDS if you develop diseases that a healthy immune system would normally fight off, such as pneumonia, certain types of cancer, and infections.

There are two types of HIV: HIV-1 and HIV-2. Most people with HIV in the United States have HIV-1.

Why Should You Have an HIV Test?

Once you contract the HIV virus, it may be months or years before it develops into AIDS, meaning you can have the virus and not even know it. Being tested is the only way you will know. If you are diagnosed early, you can be treated with anti-HIV drugs. They will help you stay healthy and decrease the chance of passing the HIV virus to others, including your baby if you become pregnant.

Who Should Be Tested?

HIV testing is a routine part of health care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend that everyone 13 to 64 years old be tested for HIV at least once, and Cheyenne Women’s Clinic endorses those recommendations. These organizations also recommend HIV testing for women who are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant.

You should have a test each year as well if you have any of the following risk factors for HIV infection:

  • Inject (shoot) illegal drugs
  • Have a sex partner who uses injection drugs or has HIV
  • Exchange sex for drugs or money
  • Have had a male sex partner who has had sex with men since your most recent HIV test
  • Have had more than one sex partner since your most recent HIV test

You can have an HIV test again at any time, even if you do not have risk factors. If you are older than 64 years and you have risk factors for HIV, you should have a test annually. It also is a good idea for you and your partner to be tested before you start a new sexual relationship.

How HIV Testing Works

We can do HIV testing at Cheyenne Women’s Clinic, or you can go to your primary care physician’s office.

The recommended HIV screening test looks for the presence of HIV antibodies and a specific HIV antigen called p24 in a sample of your blood. Your immune system makes antibodies in response to an infection with HIV, and an antigen is a part of the virus. The test can detect the p24 antigen about three weeks after your HIV exposure. You will get the results of this test in a few days, but there are other screening tests called rapid HIV tests that provide faster results.

You can also get a home HIV screening test kit that uses either saliva or a sample of your blood from a finger prick. Make sure you only get a test that is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and carefully follow the directions to make sure you get accurate results. Tests that use saliva look for HIV antibodies only, and it takes your body three to six months to make them after your exposure to HIV. Testing too soon might not provide you with accurate results.

A positive test result does not necessarily mean that you have HIV. No matter what kind of screening test you have initially, you need to have a second, confirming test if you get a positive result. This test looks for the genetic material of the virus in a sample of your blood. Results take about two weeks. If the result of the confirming test is positive, you have the HIV virus.

What Happens If You are Diagnosed with HIV

A positive HIV confirming test result means you have the virus and that you can infect others if you have unprotected sex or share needles to inject drugs. A positive test result does not tell you whether you have AIDS or if you will get sick.

If you have HIV, you should see a health care provider, even if you don’t feel sick. That provider may refer you to a health care provider or group of health care providers who specialize in caring for people infected with HIV. An HIV specialist can start you on a drug therapy that can help you stay healthy for a long time. The earlier you start treatment, the better it will be for your long-term health. It also reduces your risk of passing on the virus to uninfected sex partners.

Your health care provider will report your positive test results (but not your name) to your state health department. This is done to keep track of how many people in the United States have HIV.

Once you find out you have HIV, you should tell all of your sexual partners and people you share needles with about your HIV status. They should have an HIV test as well so they can begin treatment if they are HIV positive. Some state health departments have criminal laws that specifically pertain to people infected with HIV, but Wyoming does not. You can find out information about Wyoming’s state guidelines related to HIV here.

HIV Testing if You are Pregnant

If you are pregnant, your doctor will give you a routine test for HIV as early as possible in your pregnancy. You should have another test in the third trimester of your pregnancy if you have any of these risk factors:

  • Have received a diagnosis of another sexually transmitted infection in the past year.
  • Inject drugs or have a sex partner who injects drugs.
  • Exchange sex for money or drugs.
  • Live in an area with high numbers of people infected with HIV.
  • Have a new or more than one sex partner during this pregnancy.
  • Have a sex partner who is HIV positive or at high risk of being HIV positive.

If you are pregnant and have HIV, you can pass the virus to your baby. The good news is that treatment during pregnancy and treating the baby after delivery can greatly reduce the chance of this happening.

Your treatment will include:

  • Taking a combination of anti-HIV drugs during your pregnancy as directed by your doctor.
  • Having a cesarean delivery if lab tests show that your level of HIV is high.
  • Taking anti-HIV drugs during labor and delivery as needed.
  • Giving an anti-HIV drug to your baby after birth.
  • Not breastfeeding your baby.

By following these guidelines, there is a 99% chance that you will not pass on HIV to your baby.

If you don’t have an HIV test during your pregnancy, the doctor will give you a rapid HIV test when you go into labor. If this result is positive, you will need to have a confirming HIV test. However, the doctor will give you anti-HIV drugs while you are in labor. Doctors will give your baby anti-HIV drugs in the first few days after delivery. Taking these precautions can greatly decrease the risk of transmitting the virus to the baby if it turns out that you are HIV positive.

If your confirming HIV test result is positive, both you and your baby will need ongoing treatment. Anti-HIV drugs for each of you will protect your own health and decrease the chance that your baby becomes infected. If the confirming test result is negative, that means that neither of you has HIV and you don’t need further treatment.

For More Information

If you have questions about HIV, AIDS, or HIV testing, you can learn more from the links below or by talking to your doctor.

 

Source: American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology

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