A false-positive HIV test occurs when a test incorrectly indicates that a person has contracted the virus. Receiving a false positive can cause conflicting feelings. People may wonder what they can or should do next.

In this article, we suggest some next steps for people who have had false-positive HIV test results. We also provide detailed information about the HIV testing process.

A person knows that they had a false positive when an initial test indicated they had HIV, but a follow-up test was negative.

A false positive typically results from the test incorrectly identifying non-HIV antibodies as HIV antibodies.

After receiving the initial result, the healthcare professional will perform an additional test to ensure that the result is accurate.

If the second result is also positive, it confirms the presence of HIV.

In this case, a healthcare professional will provide support and information about treatment options.

If the follow-up test is negative, it means that the first test was incorrect.

Below are some tips that can help a person deal with a false-positive result.

When a person learns that they may have a chronic condition, it can be stressful or overwhelming — even while waiting to receive the results of the second test.

If the second test returns a negative result, a person may experience conflicting emotions. It can be helpful to seek support during this time from family, friends, or a partner.

Some people may wish to discuss their emotions with a mental health professional, such as a therapist.

It is important to discuss the cause of a false-positive result with a healthcare professional.

Some false positives stem from technical mix-ups, incorrect labeling, or a person misreading the result.

There can also be medical mechanisms behind false positives.

For example, a false-positive reading may indicate that a person has an autoimmune disorder or another underlying medical condition. In this case, it may be a good idea to investigate further.

If a person receives a negative follow-up result but thinks that they may have been exposed to the virus in recent weeks, it is important to take another test in 1–3 months.

This is because it takes several weeks for HIV antibodies to reach detectable levels in the bloodstream.

If they receive a negative follow-up result after taking a rapid self-test but think they were recently exposed to the virus, they may wish to consult a healthcare professional.

Healthcare professionals call the time in which levels of antibodies are undetectable the “window period.” HIV test results are often negative during this period, even if the person has contracted the virus.

Everyone should take precautions to avoid contracting or transmitting HIV. To do this:

  • Use condoms or other barrier methods during all sexual activity.
  • Consider limiting the number of sexual partners.
  • Refrain from using oil-based lubricants with condoms.
  • Do not share needles, syringes, or cookers if using injectable drugs.
  • Consider penis (penile) circumcision.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), penis (penile) circumcision may decrease men’s odds of contracting HIV through vagina/penile sex by 60 percent.

Some people have a higher risk of contracting HIV, including those whose sexual partner or partners have the virus. In this case, taking preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) therapy can reduce the risk of contracting it.

People who may have been exposed to HIV can take postexposure prophylaxis, or PEP, medication within 72 hours. This may prevent them from contracting the virus.

There are many ways to test for HIV, all with different windows and response times.

People who are at especially high risk for contracting the virus may take a nucleic test, which requires a blood draw in a doctor’s office and will detect the presence of an infection within 10 to 33 days. It takes several days to get results from a lab.

More common is the antibody/antigen test, which also uses a blood draw in a healthcare professional’s office and can detect infection within 18 to 45 days. This will take several days to get a result, but it picks up on the presence of the virus faster.

Rapid antibody/antigen self-tests can be performed in a healthcare professional’s office or at home with a self-test. These use blood from a finger prick and detect infection about 18 to 90 days out. It takes about 30 minutes to get results.

Finally, rapid antibody tests can be taken in a healthcare professional’s office using blood from a vein and return results within days. They are more sensitive though perhaps less convenient than antibody self-tests, which use blood from a finger or saliva and return results within 20 to 30 minutes.

Antibody tests detect HIV 23 to 90 days after exposure.

Due to the risk of inaccurate results, healthcare professionals should repeat any positive tests done in their labs to confirm the result. They may use the original blood sample or a new one.

False-positive results are uncommon, according to the CDC.

It also estimates that the specificity, or accuracy, of testing is 99.6 percent.

The other type of inaccurate result is a false negative. It occurs when an initial result is negative, but subsequent testing indicates that the person does have HIV.

False negatives usually occur in the early stages of the virus before detectable levels of antibodies build up in the bloodstream.

The CDC recommends that everyone ages 13–64 get tested for HIV at least once. Those at high risk should undergo annual testing.

Cisgender and transgender men who have sex with other men may wish to consider getting tested more frequently, possibly every 3–6 months. If you are a cisgender or transgender woman who has a male partner who has sex with other male partners, you may also want to consider getting tested more frequently.

Factors that increase a person’s risk of contracting HIV include:

  • having sex without a barrier method
  • sharing needles and other drug equipment
  • having sex with a person who has HIV or is at high risk of HIV
  • having another sexually transmitted infection
  • having hepatitis or tuberculosis
  • having an uncircumcised penis

Pregnant people should undergo HIV testing so that they can receive treatment if the results are positive. Receiving treatment during pregnancy reduces the risk of transmitting HIV to the baby.

A false-positive HIV test result can cause conflicting emotions. It is important to discuss the reasons for the inaccuracy with a healthcare professional and ask about options.

Everyone should receive HIV testing at least once. Pregnant people and those with increased odds of contracting HIV should undergo testing more often.

For people in the United States, this CDC locator can help identify nearby HIV testing.

To prevent the virus’ transmission, use a condom during sexual activity, refrain from sharing drug-injection equipment, and consider penis (penile) circumcision.