An HIV test can let a person know if they have HIV. An individual can get tested at a doctor’s office, sexual health clinic, or other test sites, or they can order a self-test kit to use at home. How long it takes to get the results depends on the test type. Most sexually active people should aim to get a test at least once a year.

HIV is a virus that attacks and destroys cells in the immune system. These cells protect the body against germs, such as viruses and bacteria, that cause diseases.

If a person loses too many immune cells, their body will have difficulty fighting off infections and other diseases. Without treatment, HIV can lead to AIDS.

Although there is currently no cure for HIV, with proper medical care, a person can manage the virus and its symptoms and have a close-to-normal life expectancy.

The only way an individual can know for sure whether they have HIV is to get an HIV test. They should know their HIV status to help them make healthy decisions to prevent contracting or transmitting HIV.

This article looks at types of HIV tests, self-tests, how long it takes to get results for HIV tests, and how soon after exposure that tests can detect the virus. It also looks at where people can get or order a test and whether individuals should get tested.

a doctor pricks a person's finger for a blood testShare on Pinterest
Hoberman Collection/Getty Images

There are three types of HIV tests a person can take:

  • nucleic acid tests (NATs)
  • antigen/antibody tests
  • HIV antibody tests

These tests typically involve screening oral fluid or blood and sometimes urine for HIV.

NATs

This test looks for HIV in the blood. A healthcare professional will draw blood from a vein. The test can tell if a person has HIV and how much of the virus is present in the blood — medical professionals refer to this as the viral load.

NATs can detect HIV sooner than other types of tests, but they are expensive, so doctors do not usually use them as a part of an HIV screening.

A healthcare professional will usually perform a NAT if a person has recently had a high-risk exposure and shows early symptoms of HIV.

Antigen/antibody test

This test looks for HIV antigens and antibodies.

HIV produces an antigen called p24, which blood tests can detect before antibodies to the virus develop.

A person’s immune system will also produce antibodies when they experience exposure to viruses such as HIV.

Antigen/antibody tests are common in the United States, and medical teams usually conduct them in a laboratory.

The test usually involves a healthcare professional drawing blood from a vein. A rapid antigen/antibody test is also available and consists of a healthcare professional performing a finger prick test.

HIV antibody test

This test looks for antibodies to HIV in the blood or oral fluid. Tests that use blood from a vein can generally detect the virus faster than tests involving a finger prick or oral fluid.

Most HIV rapid tests and the only currently HIV self-test with approval is the antibody test.

There are two kinds of HIV self-tests: rapid self-tests and mail-in self-tests.

Rapid self-test

A person can perform a rapid self-test at home that can produce results within 20 minutes.

Individuals can buy a rapid self-test kit at a pharmacy or online. Oral fluid tests are the only kind of rapid self-tests currently available in the U.S.

There is currently only one rapid self-test that has approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA): OraQuick. For this test, a person swabs their gums to collect a sample of oral fluid and tests it with the materials in the kit. The test then produces a result within 20 minutes.

However, it is essential that people follow the kit directions, or the test will not work. The package includes a phone number that a person can call if they need help conducting the test.

If the test is negative and a person has not had possible exposure within the past 3 months, they can be confident that they are HIV-negative.

If the test result is positive, individuals should speak with a healthcare professional for a follow-up test.

Mail-in self-test

A mail-in self-test includes a specimen collection kit to collect dried blood from a fingerstick. A person then sends the sample to a lab for testing, after which a healthcare professional sends the results back. Individuals can order a mail-in self-test through various online providers or from their doctor or healthcare team.

People should carefully follow the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure they collect a usable sample.

They can feel confident they do not have HIV following a negative test result and have experienced no potential HIV exposure in the previous 3 months.

If the test is positive, a person should seek a follow-up test from their doctor.

If individuals purchase a self-test online, private health insurance or Medicaid may not cover this cost. Therefore, check with insurance providers and healthcare providers regarding reimbursement for these types of tests before purchasing them.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise people to view self-testing as a first step. If a person gets a positive result or still feels unsure, they should speak with a doctor to confirm the result.

As long as people follow the correct procedures, HIV tests are highly accurate. However, some factors that may influence the accuracy of these tests include:

  • the type of test used
  • the type of sample collected for the test
  • how soon a person receives testing after exposure to the virus
  • how an individual’s body responds to HIV

It is also important to be aware of the term window period, which refers to how much time has passed between the possible exposure and the test. HIV only becomes detectable after some time. A person should take a test at least 90 days after the potential exposure to get an accurate result.

  • NAT and antigen/antibody tests both require a healthcare professional to draw blood from a person and send it to a lab for testing. It may take several days for the results.
  • Rapid antigen/antibody tests require a medical professional to prick a person’s finger to draw blood and can produce results within 30 minutes.
  • Rapid antibody screening tests usually involve using blood from a finger prick or oral fluid and can produce results in 30 minutes.
  • The oral fluid antibody self-test can provide results in 20 minutes.

None of the available HIV tests can detect the virus immediately after acquiring the infection. If a person thinks they have experienced exposure to HIV in the last 72 hours, they should speak to a healthcare professional immediately about post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

Tests have the below differences in virus detection times.

  • A NAT can usually tell if a person has HIV 10–33 days after exposure to the virus.
  • A laboratory antigen/antibody test on blood from a vein can usually detect HIV infection 18–45 days after exposure. Antigen/antibody tests using blood from a finger prick may take longer at 18–90 days following exposure.
  • Antibody tests can take 23–90 days after exposure to detect HIV. These include most rapid tests and self-tests.

If a person gets an HIV test after potential exposure and the result is negative, they should get a test again after the window period.

There are many options available for people looking to get an HIV test. These include:

  • health clinics or community health centers
  • a person’s healthcare professional’s office
  • family planning clinics
  • sexual health clinics
  • local health departments
  • Veterans Affairs medical centers
  • substance abuse prevention and treatment programs
  • many pharmacies
  • an FDA-approved OraQuick self-test online.

The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 years receives testing for HIV at least once.

People at higher risk should seek testing more often. Individuals should get an HIV test as soon as possible if they were HIV-negative the last time they had a test, the test was more than 1 year ago, and the below applies to them:

  • they have had anal or vaginal sex with a partner who has HIV
  • they are a male who has had sex with another male
  • they have injected drugs and shared needles, syringes, or other injections equipment with others
  • they have had more than one sexual partner since their last HIV test
  • they have received a diagnosis of another sexually transmitted infection
  • they have exchanged sex for money
  • they have received a diagnosis of hepatitis or tuberculosis
  • they have had sex with someone to whom any of the above applies or whose sexual history they do not know

A person who answers yes to any of the above should get tested once a year. The CDC says that sexually active gay and bisexual males could benefit from more frequent testing, such as every 3–6 months.

A pregnant person should also get an HIV test to find ways to protect their baby from contracting HIV.

Before having sex with a new partner, a couple should disclose their HIV statuses to each other or both consider getting an HIV test.

Even people in monogamous relationships should find out their HIV status.

There are three types of HIV tests: NATs, antigen/antibody tests, and antibody tests. A person can also self-test at home using a rapid or mail-in self-test.

People can receive results for HIV tests at different times, depending on the test. It can take several days for the results of a NAT, 30 minutes for a rapid antigen/antibody test, 30 minutes for a rapid antibody test, and 20 minutes for an oral fluid self-test.

If exposure to HIV occurs within the past 72 hours, speak with a healthcare professional to discuss PEP as soon as possible.

A person can make use of various options to get an HIV test, including at sexual health clinics and their doctor’s office or by ordering an OraQuick test online.

All individuals should receive an HIV test at least once. Those at higher risk should get a test once a year or more frequently, depending on their levels of possible exposure.