Since HIV symptoms are often non-specific, or not present at all, they are not reliable in determining if you have the virus. The only way to be certain of your HIV status is to get tested. The timing of when to get tested depends on how long ago a potential exposure occurred and what kind of test is used. If you think you have recently been exposed to HIV, seek medical attention as soon as possible. Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), a medication used to prevent the spread of the virus after exposure has already occurred, may be beneficial. PEP can only be used within 72 hours (3 days) of exposure, so the sooner a healthcare provider is contacted after potential exposure, the better.1
Where to go to get tested
There are many locations and services an individual can use to get tested. A good first step is to visit your regular doctor or primary care provider. They can provide HIV testing, including proper interpretation of results and access to treatment, if need be. Under current policy guidelines, HIV testing is covered by insurance and no co-pay is required.2 HIV testing involves your provider taking a sample of fluid from your mouth or collecting blood from a finger prick or from a vein in your arm.1
Not all individuals needing HIV testing will feel comfortable seeing their primary care provider, and some may not have a regular provider at all. If this is the case, HIV testing is still readily available. Many community health centers or clinics offer testing, as well as local health departments, family planning clinics, substance abuse programs or treatment centers, VA health centers, and Planned Parenthood clinics. If you are a student or work at a university, HIV testing may be offered by your campus health services. Some national organizations, such as the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and Greater than AIDS, among others, even offer mobile units that provide testing across the country. There are also similar organizations that operate locally to provide access to testing.1-3
If you are unsure of where to start when it comes to HIV testing, you can also use national resources created by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) to find options near you. These include:
- Visiting gettested.cdc.gov
- Texting your zip code to 566948 (KNOW IT)
- Calling 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636)1
There are at-home HIV tests that involve swabbing the inside of your mouth. Results from these FDA-approved oral tests may be read at home within twenty minutes, so it is not necessary to see a healthcare provider or go to a testing facility to get an initial HIV test. If the result is positive, the manufacturers of the test can direct you toward follow-up testing and appropriate care. However, if the result is negative, it does not guarantee that a person does not have HIV. Follow-up testing with a healthcare provider or other testing facility may be necessary if you are at risk.1,3,4
How to find free testing
As mentioned, HIV testing should be covered by insurance, however, not everyone has access to insurance or wants to go through insurance for their HIV testing. Free HIV testing can be offered across any/all of the previously listed testing sites, depending on their policies.1,3 The CDC’s gettested.cdc.gov website has a filter to search specifically free testing sites in your area.
There are many options for free or reduced-cost testing, so cost concerns should never stop you from getting tested. Going to an established healthcare facility for testing may help you get access to the treatment you need as soon as possible, however, any external organization can provide you with resources to get the care you need if you test positive.
Battling complicated emotions and fears with testing
Deciding whether or not to get an HIV test, and going for testing can lead to complicated and overwhelming emotions. Many may experience fear if they are worried that they are going to test positive for the virus, while others may be nervous about experiencing stigma or discrimination from healthcare providers or other professionals who provide testing. Some individuals may be nervous about aspects of their identity being exposed, such as their sexual practices or any drug use. These are all completely valid concerns and emotions to experience. However, it’s important to remember that with appropriate treatment HIV can be managed. Although it may be scary to find out your status, starting treatment sooner, rather than later, leads to better overall health outcomes.
While discrimination, stigma, and embarrassment from healthcare providers are also valid concerns, there are organizations outside of the typical healthcare setting that can provide testing and information. Many of these organizations, like the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, among many others, are dedicated to providing compassionate care and support to those living with, or concerned they might have, HIV. These organizations can provide confidential care and help you find medical professionals in your area who are dedicated to providing compassionate support to those living with HIV. There are many professionals across the country that can help you navigate this process without judgement, discrimination, stigma, or embarrassment.