An infectious disease physician answers some common questions about testing, plus what treatment options are available if you test positive.
One in every seven people who has HIV is unaware they have it—putting themselves and their sexual partners’ health at risk. On June 27, we’re recognizing National HIV Testing Day: a day to raise awareness about HIV and encourage everyone to get tested.
“Knowledge is power,” says Mark Fussa, DO, infectious diseases specialist. “As the HIV pandemic has evolved over the last 30 years, we’ve been able to develop very effective treatments. To slow down this pandemic even more, every person should be aware of their HIV status.”
Who Should Be Tested for HIV
Dr. Fussa says that, from a public health perspective, more people should be getting tested for HIV on a regular basis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends every person between the ages of 13 and 64 be tested for HIV at least once during their lifetime. For certain groups of people, it’s best to be tested on a more frequent basis. The guidelines for testing frequency are:
- Annually if you’re sexually active
- Every 6-12 months if you or your partner have had more than one sexual partner within a year
- Every 3-6 months if you’re a sexually active gay or bisexual man
Your risk exponentially increases with the number of sexual partners you have, especially if you’re a man having sex with other men. “Routine testing is important if you fall in these categories because, if you test positive, you can start treatment right away and avoid passing HIV along to your sexual partners in the future,” says Dr. Fussa.
If you are at high risk of getting HIV, it’s a good idea to consider taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication—a daily pill that is highly effective at preventing HIV for people regularly exposed to it through their sexual partner or partners.
Where to Get Tested
When it comes to getting tested for HIV, there are many different options. If you already have a relationship with a primary care physician, they can be a great first line of defense for preventive testing.
“Many public resources are available for HIV testing,” says Dr. Fussa. “Check on your city or state’s public health department website for testing locations. Many of these will be free or low-cost. There are even mail-away tests you can take in the privacy of your own home.”
Whether you’ve gotten a blood test, a cheek swab or a finger prick, all FDA-approved HIV tests provide accurate results, available to you within a few days to a few minutes, if you choose to take a rapid test.
Getting Tested After an Exposure
If you believe you have been exposed to HIV, it’s important to visit your doctor as soon as you can. “We have resources readily available that decrease your risk of getting HIV, even if you’ve had a serious exposure,” says Dr. Fussa. Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) is a medication to prevent HIV after possible exposure and must be used within 72 hours to be effective.
While it’s important to visit your doctor for an HIV test as soon as exposure occurs, you should keep in mind that there can be a window period after exposure, potentially leading to a false negative. “You should still get tested early, but it’s best to also get an HIV test about 18 to 30 days after a known exposure,” says Dr. Fussa.
What to Do if You Test Positive for HIV
If your HIV test comes back positive, treatment is available. “After your diagnosis, we’ll confirm the positive test with a second look, or a secondary test, to clarify the results,” says Dr. Fussa. “If you test positive for HIV, it’s very possible you’ll start treatment the same day.” Almost all HIV medications are taken orally, one pill per day.
Dr. Fussa wants people to know that HIV testing is now a normal part of routine preventive medical care. “There’s a large population of people who are at risk, and we need to remove the stigma of being tested or testing positive for HIV so we can move past this 30-year pandemic,” he says.