It is advisable for anyone who thinks that they may have HIV to visit a healthcare professional. However, at-home tests can provide a rapid result, potentially alleviating a person’s concerns while they are waiting for an appointment.

As HIV does not always cause symptoms in the early stages, anyone who suspects that they have had exposure to the virus should see a doctor even if they do not have any symptoms. Having unprotected sex and sharing needles to inject drugs are examples of activities that can expose a person to HIV.

HIV is a virus that transmits through blood, breast milk, and sexual fluids, including semen, vaginal fluids, and rectal fluids. Without treatment, HIV will eventually progress to stage 3 HIV, which people commonly refer to as AIDS. AIDS is a serious condition in which a person’s immune system is significantly weakened.

After contracting HIV, not everyone will show symptoms initially. However, when symptoms do occur, these typically appear 2–4 weeks after exposure to the virus. Anyone with symptoms of HIV should see a doctor as soon as they can.

This article explains how rapid HIV tests work and provides some general information about HIV testing.

Close up of an at-home HIV test.Share on Pinterest
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Many different HIV at-home tests are currently on the market in the United States.

However, as HIV testing is such an important procedure, picking safe and reliable tests is crucial.

The OraQuick In-Home HIV Test is the only at-home HIV test that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved. It works by testing fluids from a person’s mouth and can deliver results in 20 minutes.

There are three main types of HIV tests:

  1. nucleic acid tests (NATs)
  2. antigen/antibody tests, also called fourth generation tests
  3. antibody tests

NATs are not rapid HIV tests because they require a healthcare professional to draw a sample of blood from the person’s vein and send it to a laboratory for analysis. This process can take a few days. However, NATs allow doctors to measure the viral load, which is the amount of HIV virus in a person’s blood.

Some antigen/antibody tests are slow because they also involve drawing and analyzing blood from a vein. However, other antigen/antibody tests require only a small amount of blood from a finger prick. These tests take just 20–30 minutes.

Finally, most rapid HIV tests are antibody tests. They work by testing a person’s blood or oral fluids and usually take 20–30 minutes.

As with all quick at-home HIV tests, the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test is an antibody test.

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explain, different HIV tests work in different ways.

For instance, NATs work by detecting the actual HIV virus in a person’s blood, whereas antibody tests detect the presence of specific antibodies. Antigen/antibody tests do the same, but also for antigens.

Antigens are molecules or foreign substances in viruses or other pathogens that activate the immune system. For example, p24 is a protein inside the HIV virus that certain HIV tests detect. Antibodies are a particular type of protein that the immune system produces to fight infections.

It is important to remember that no HIV test can detect HIV immediately after exposure. In fact, antibody tests can only detect HIV 23–90 days after exposure to the virus. However, combined antibody/antigen tests can detect HIV much earlier — as soon as 2 weeks after exposure.

Another factor to consider is that HIV tests are never 100% reliable. For instance, the FDA reports that the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test gives one false-positive result for every 5,000 tests on people without HIV. In addition, the test gives about one false-negative result for every 12 tests on people with the infection.

A person who thinks that they might have HIV is likely to worry. However, it is not always easy for everyone to see a doctor quickly.

For this reason, rapid at-home HIV tests can help a person relieve some of their uncertainty as soon as possible.

However, if a person is concerned that they may have contracted HIV or had exposure to the virus, they should seek professional medical help.

Although a negative result from a home test can be comforting, these tests are only the first step.

As false positives and false negatives do occur, it is important to get a follow-up test from a healthcare professional.

In particular, anyone who receives a negative result from the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test should not presume that they do not have HIV. Further testing is a requirement, especially if the person has symptoms of HIV or knows that they have had exposure to the virus.

If further testing shows no signs of HIV, it is usually safe for a person to conclude that they do not have the infection. If the test result is positive, their doctor will advise them on what to do next.

Although HIV is a serious condition, scientists have done a lot of research to create the best possible treatments. As one study notes, current treatments are so effective that many people with HIV can have a normal life expectancy.

The CDC reports that at the end of 2018, about 1.2 million people had HIV in the U.S. However, 1 in 7 of these people did not know that they had contracted the virus.

Rapid HIV tests are an important tool that healthcare professionals use to slow the spread of HIV and improve the outlook of those living with the virus.

Although it is possible to test for HIV at home, it is advisable for anyone who suspects that they might have contracted the virus to seek professional medical attention for a diagnosis and treatment.