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HIV can be a life changing condition, but early testing and effective treatment enable many people with the infection to live healthy, active lives.

Some individuals undergo HIV screening every so often, while others seek tests only after possible exposure. Healthcare professionals also test for HIV during pregnancy.

Routine testing is essential for anyone with known HIV risk factors, such as having anal or vaginal sex with multiple partners without a condom, sharing equipment to inject drugs, or exchanging sex for money or items.

People commonly test themselves with screening methods that have approval from the World Health Organization (WHO). The convenience and privacy these kits offer can encourage individuals to test, meaning more people living with HIV receive treatment and take prompt precautions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourage people to see self-testing as a first step. If the result is positive, the person should speak with a healthcare professional for another test to confirm the result.

It is also essential to use an approved kit and follow the instructions carefully.

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Home testing for HIV might involve self-sampling or self-testing.

The most reliable test, OraQuick, has approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

These self-tests look for virus antibodies — foreign substances that trigger a response from the immune system.

Self-sampling

Self-sampling kits contain equipment for collecting a sample of blood, urine, or saliva.

A person typically mails their sample to the lab, which returns the result either to them or their healthcare professional after a few days. These tests are highly sensitive and can provide accurate results soon after exposure.

However, there are no FDA-approved self-sampling kits. With this in mind, a person should look for kits that undergo processing by labs meeting Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments standards.

Self-testing

A person can perform a rapid test at home. The OraQuick In-Home HIV test is the only option with full FDA approval. It involves taking a saliva swab and produces results in 20–40 minutes.

However, this test is less reliable than self-sampling, and the FDA only recommends further testing after this screening.

These self-tests should also not replace medical care from a healthcare professional. A person should always speak with a doctor about obtaining a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

An older test called the Home Access HIV-1 Test Service underwent discontinuation in 2019.

No HIV test is 100% accurate, but using one correctly improves the chances of getting an accurate result.

One factor to consider is how much time has passed between the possible exposure and the test, known as the “window period.”

HIV only becomes detectable on a test after some time. A person can take a self-test 23–90 days after exposure to the virus.

Tests that use blood from a vein may detect HIV earlier, but these are only available from healthcare professionals.


Self-sampling

NAM, an HIV charity from the United Kingdom, notes that, while there is little published evidence to confirm this, tests with samples that go to a lab are likely to be accurate. However, it adds that any results require confirmation with further tests.

Factors that may reduce the accuracy include:

  • not leaving time for the cleaning alcohol to dry on the skin before taking the sample
  • not collecting enough blood
  • delays in sending samples
  • exposure of the sample to extreme weather conditions


Self-testing

In a few cases — around 1 in 5,000 — the OraQuick test may produce a false-positive result.

Moreover, in around 1 in 12 cases, it produces a false-negative result. In other words, it will show that HIV is not present when it is.

A false-negative result may occur if a person uses the test within 3 months, or possibly longer, after exposure to the virus. It can also occur while a person is taking medication to manage or prevent HIV transmission.

This is one reason why the FDA considers home testing to be just a first step toward an accurate result.

In optimal conditions, at-home tests fair well. A 2018 meta-analysis of 25 international studies found that untrained individuals taking rapid self-tests to detect HIV gained results in agreement with tests involving healthcare professionals. However, blood-based tests had higher specificity and sensitivity than saliva tests.

The analysis concluded that self-testers can reliably and accurately perform HIV rapid diagnostic tests compared with trained healthcare workers.

HIV home testing kits are available without a prescription:

  • online
  • at pharmacies
  • through healthcare providers
  • through some community-based organizations
  • from laboratories

Before buying a test online, a person should check what that test involves. Additionally, some tests are not available in every state.

OraQuick is available for purchase through the company’s website. The cost is currently $38.99, plus shipping and handling. The company uses unmarked packaging to preserve user privacy.

In early 2022, California became the first U.S. state to require private insurers to cover HIV self-tests. Many cities and states will also send free tests to those who request them by mail.

Learn more about HIV self-tests for purchase.

Reasons for choosing a home test might include:

  • a need for privacy
  • limited access to healthcare facilities
  • limited time for visiting these facilities
  • limitations on movement and facilities due to COVID-19
  • having a known HIV risk factor and testing regularly

Anyone who may have had exposure to HIV should take a test. However, if a person knows they have had acute HIV exposure or experienced sexual assault and have concerns about sexually transmitted infections (STIs), they should seek medical care. There is postexposure prophylaxis that can help prevent HIV.

Within 2–4 weeks of infection, some people experience:

These could be symptoms of acute HIV infection, the earliest stage. The symptoms may disappear after a few days, but they can last several weeks.

People should also test if there is a diagnosis of:

Learn more about the early signs and symptoms of HIV.

Whatever the result of a home test, a person usually needs to follow up with a test at a clinic. Until this second test confirms the result, individuals need to take precautions to prevent the transmission of the virus.

If confirmation testing gives a positive result, a person should:

  • make a treatment plan with a healthcare professional
  • receive testing for other STIs and TB
  • take steps to protect overall health, such as attending to any other health issues and following a nutritious diet
  • seek counseling and support.
  • talk with any sexual partners about undergoing testing
  • quit smoking and limit the use of alcohol and any recreational drugs, if applicable
  • receive help for any substance misuse disorder, if applicable

Ways to prevent transmission of the virus include:

  • using condoms or dental dams during any sexual activities
  • talking openly with partners about HIV
  • taking medications as a doctor recommends
  • discussing the use of preexposure medications with sexual partners who have not had positive test results
  • if applicable, not sharing needles or any drug equipment

HIV is a lifelong condition, but current treatments can dramatically reduce the condition’s effects on a person’s health and lifestyle, especially with prompt treatment.

Antiretroviral therapy can reduce levels of the virus in the body so that they are no longer detectable. At this point, the virus cannot transmit to another person.

What is it like to live with HIV?

Self-testing for HIV might involve using a saliva swab and waiting 20–40 minutes for a result. It may also involve taking a sample of blood, saliva, or urine and sending it to a lab for diagnosis.

Self-testing can give a person an idea of their HIV status, but the result needs confirmation with a test from a healthcare professional.

Always follow the testing instructions closely to increase the chances of an accurate result.

Read this article in Spanish.