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Should I Get Tested For HIV?

Medical Health

HIV can feel scary to people who are sexually active, but in reality, staying safe from the virus can be simple if you know what to do. As opposed to a few decades ago, today we have more information, clinical research, and tools to limit the transmission of this virus, but protecting yourself starts with a single step: early testing.

Knowing your HIV status can help you make decisions to help you get and stay healthy, and with modern technologies, testing is faster, more cost effective, and more confidential than ever before. When you take the step to get you and your partner tested for HIV, you’re investing your future and setting yourself up for a long, healthy life. Plus, early testing and treatment is critical to helping end the HIV epidemic in the United States.

Today we’ll dive into the basics of HIV and how you and your partner can stay safe and healthy.

What is HIV?

Human immunodeficiency virus or HIV is a sexually transmitted disease. It’s a virus that attacks and weakens the body’s immune system. Unfortunately, a weakened immune system puts you at higher risk for getting sick with everything from simple colds to more serious conditions like cancer, infections, and tuberculosis. Currently, there’s no cure for HIV so people with this disease will have it for all of their lives; however, if left untreated, HIV develops into AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) over time. 

HIV was first identified in the US in the 1970s but it first originated in a group of chimpanzees in Central Africa. After making the leap from monkey to humans, the virus has been spreading across the globe for decades.

How is HIV Spread?

Vaginal Sex

Like other STIs, HIV is spread via sexual contact including vaginal sex. During vaginal sex, HIV can pass through the thin tissue that lines the vagina and cervix. Period blood and vaginal fluid can also carry HIV which can then pass through the opening at the tip of the penis (urethra) or any small cuts, scratches, or open sores on the penis.

Anal Sex

HIV tends to spread quickly via anal sex. Because the rectum lining is thin, HIV may enter the body during anal sex, but can also enter through the opening at the tip of the penis (urethra) or any small cuts, scratches, or open sores on the penis.


You can also get HIV if the blood of someone with HIV enters your bloodstream, which often happens accidentally. If you use needles to inject drugs, never share needles with others because their blood will be mixed with yours. Should they have HIV in their system, it would then spread to you. Infected needles can also transmit HIV if someone is accidentally stuck with a syringe at their place of work, such as at an STI testing center or other medical facility.


Though rare, perinatal transmission, or mother-to-child transmission, occurs when HIV is transmitted from mother to baby during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. If an infected mom-to-be gets HIV treatment as prescribed throughout pregnancy and childbirth, and follows up by consistently giving her baby HIV medicine for 4-6 weeks after birth, her newborn’s chance of getting HIV can drop to under 1%.

Common Transmission Misconceptions

There are quite a few misconceptions surrounding activities that can lead to an HIV transmission. Here are just a few:

About 1 in 8 people in the US have HIV and don’t know it.

As treatments improve, the number of people who die from HIV has shrunk over time. According to the CDC, about 4,977 people died from HIV/AIDS in 2021, but approximately 1.2 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV/AIDS.

Since there’s no cure for this disease, early diagnosis is crucial. The CDC recommends that everyone between 13 and 64 should be tested at least once. If you’re sexually active, we recommend getting tested annually and since anal sex presents a higher risk of infection, anyone engaging in anal sex should test every 3-6 months.

Benefits of Responsible, On-Time Testing

Testing can feel pretty scary. At the end of the day, the test result can either clear you or confirm that you have HIV which can be a terrifying thought. But the truth is that early and consistent testing significantly lowers your risk of living with and getting seriously ill from the disease. 

Best case scenario is a negative HIV test. If you test negative, it’s important to stay vigilant and encourage your partner to test as well. If you test positive, you’re poised to start treatment as soon as possible. People who take HIV medicine as prescribed can live long and healthy lives. There’s an added benefit because your partner can avoid contracting HIV if you take your medicine as prescribed and you’re able to reach and keep an undetectable viral load. When this happens, you will not transmit the infection to your partner through sex.

If you’re pregnant and test positive, with early detection and a full treatment schedule, you can protect your baby from contracting HIV while protecting your own health as well.

HIV Symptoms

HIV develops in three distinct stages starting with an acute infection.

Stage 1: Acute HIV

When a person is first infected with HIV, they may experience flu-like symptoms within 1-3 weeks, however, many people don’t experience any symptoms. A symptomatic carrier may experience headaches, swollen lymph glands, night sweats, fever and muscle pains, diarrhea, and a yeast infection.

Stage 2: Clinical Latency

This stage is where the virus continues to multiply, but at low levels so the person may stop feeling sick. However, even if no symptoms present, the viral load may be high enough to cause transmission. 

Without HIV treatment, someone with HIV can be in the clinic latency or chronic HIV stage for 8-10 years, though early detection and treatment can stop the virus from reaching stage 3. At stage 2, treatment can also allow carriers to live long, healthy lives without transmitting the virus to partners through sex.

Stage 3: AIDS

If HIV isn’t detected via a test and treated, it will most likely develop into AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) which is a chronic and often severe weakening of the immune system. Some carriers of HIV remain completely healthy after 10 or even 20 years so it’s important to test often to know if you have the virus and what you need to do to stay healthy and manage changes in your symptoms.

People with AIDS are at a high risk of getting infections that are typically uncommon among people with a healthy immune system. For instance, lung infections are common in AIDS as well as intestinal infections that cause diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. Rashes, fever, weight loss, and swollen lymph glands are also common among people with AIDS.

How is HIV Tested?

While effective at identifying signs of HIV in the body, unfortunately, tests cannot detect HIV immediately after exposure because it takes time for the infection to form and for the viral load to build in your system. That being said, there are tests that can pick up on the virus quicker than others!

We’ll explore the three types of HIV tests and how long it takes before that test can detect HIV in your body:

1. Antibody Test

When testing for HIV, your physician will test your blood or saliva to look for specific antibodies that confirm the presence of HIV. When you’re exposed to viruses like HIV, antibodies are produced by your immune system. An antibody test looks for antibodies to HIV in your blood or oral fluid. It takes 23-90 days after infection before an antibody test can pick up HIV in your body. 

Typically, antibody tests that use blood from a vein can detect HIV sooner than tests done with blood from a finger stick or with saliva.

2. Antigen/Antibody Test

Antigen/antibody tests involve drawing blood from a vein and are used to look for both HIV antibodies and antigens. Antigens are foreign substances that cause your immune system to activate; in people with HIV, an antigen called p24 is produced even before antibodies develop. It takes 18-45 days after infection before an antigen/antibody test can pick up HIV in your body. 

While blood draws via your vein are common for this kind of text, rapid antigen/antibody tests are also available and can be done with blood from a finger stick.

3. Nucleic Acid Test (NAT)

A nucleic acid test can be performed with a sample of blood drawn from your vein. This test is looking for the actual virus in your blood and can indicate the presence of HIV 10-33 days after an initial infection. The NAT is ideal for people who believe they had recent exposure to the HIV virus.

You can also administer antibody tests at home. Home tests offer a unique sense of privacy and allow you to get tested in the comfort of your home. There are two types of self-test:

1. Mail-In Self-Test: With this test, you’ll collect dried blood from a fingerstick then mail the sample into a designated lab for testing. The results are then shared with you through your healthcare provider. Mail-in self-tests can be ordered through various online merchant sites. Your health care provider can also order a mail-in self-test for you.

2. Rapid Self-Test: These test your blood as well and offer results within 20 minutes. 

I Tested Positive, What Now?

The treatment for HIV/AIDS is called antiretroviral therapy (ART) and it works by stopping the virus from multiplying. This treatment can be administered:

Your physician will determine the best course of treatment based on how long you’ve had the virus and your unique physical condition. For those whose partners have tested positive, there is a pre-exposure prophylaxis. This is a medication for people who's sexual partners are HIV positive and it can be used to try and prevent the transmission.

You can find cost effective tests online. Even if you’ve never been sexually active, we know that moms can unknowingly pass on HIV to their babies so we encourage you to get tested. The more you test, the less uncomfortable it’ll be and the more confident and empowered you’d be to keep caring for your overall health. Today is the day to get tested.

Written by:
Davina Adcock

Davina is a native of Grenada and a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin. She's a content specialist with a passion for empowering women to thrive and reach their full potential. In her free time, Davina is probably painting, reading, or baking something unnecessarily sweet.

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