Who Should Get Tested?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2019

It has been estimated that roughly 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV, and about 15 percent are unaware of their status (have not yet been diagnosed).1,2 That’s about one out of every seven individuals with HIV. This number is even higher for specific age groups. For example, 51 percent of Americans with HIV between the ages of 13 and 24 are unaware they have the condition.1 When an individual does not know their HIV status and is HIV-positive, they can unknowingly transmit the virus to others.

It can take a long time for serious, long-term symptoms related to HIV to arise; symptoms that can occur early on are often non-specific, and easy to mistake for another illness. This is why medical testing for HIV is so important and is the only way to know for sure whether or not you have the virus. Although it may be scary to undergo an HIV test, especially if you think the test may be positive, there are more treatment and prevention options available than ever before. Finding out your HIV status, and starting treatment as soon as possible if you’re positive, can lead to overall better health outcomes.3

Everyone should get tested for HIV

Current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States encourage all individuals between the ages of 13 and 64 to have at least one HIV test.3-5 This HIV test can be incorporated into their normal care, and can provide a baseline for their HIV status. Further testing may be required for those at increased risk or who may be at increased risk in the future.

Am I at a higher risk of getting HIV?

Some individuals may need to be tested more frequently for HIV or may be at a increased risk of having the virus. Aside from the CDC’s recommendation of a one-time test, individuals may need additional testing if they have one or more of the following risk factors:

  • Have had vaginal or anal sex with someone who has or may have HIV
  • Are a man who regularly has sex with other men
  • Have ever exchanged sex for money, drugs, items, or basic living necessities
  • Have had multiple sexual partners, especially if they’ve had multiple partners since their last HIV test
  • Currently have, previously had, or have ever been treated for another sexually transmitted infection (STI), such as herpes, gonorrhea, chlamydia, or others
  • Have, or previously have, used injection drugs and shared needles or other equipment to inject drugs with others (water, cotton, or other “works”)
  • Have ever been diagnosed or treated for tuberculosis (TB) or hepatitis
  • Have, or previously have, had sex with someone who has one or more of the previously listed risk factors4,5

Individuals who have one or more of these risk factors may need to be tested on a regular basis, such as once a year, for as long as the risk factors apply to them. Men who have sex with other men, especially unprotected sex with multiple partners, may benefit from more frequent testing, such as testing every three to six months.3-5 If you are unsure how frequently you should be tested, consult a doctor or healthcare provider to determine your risk and appropriate testing schedule.

Pregnancy and HIV testing

Since HIV can be transmitted from a pregnant woman to her child before, during, and after birth, it is recommended for all women to get an HIV test as part of their general prenatal workup once they find out they are pregnant. The risk of HIV transmission from a pregnant woman to her baby can be greatly reduced if she takes antiretroviral therapy (ART, medications used to treat HIV), and the sooner these medications are started, the better. If a woman tests negative for HIV at the start of her pregnancy, she can still get the virus later on. In some cases, pregnant women may be tested a second time for HIV later in their pregnancy. If a woman’s HIV status is unknown at the time of her delivery, she may undergo rapid HIV testing, to best inform her healthcare team.5,6

Do I have to see a healthcare provider to get tested?

While visiting a healthcare provider can provide you with the most accurate and comprehensive approach to your care, there are initial methods of HIV testing that can be done outside of the doctor’s office, and even, at home. This may be especially helpful for those who are nervous about stigma or discrimination from healthcare providers, or who are not comfortable sharing personal details about their sexual practices or identity. At-home HIV tests can be a great first step in these situations. These tests can be bought at pharmacies or ordered online, and are anonymous. The companies that make these tests can help connect you with care if you test positive.3,5 It’s important to remember, however, that a negative at-home test result does not guarantee that you do not have HIV. It is still important to visit a doctor or healthcare provider for repeat testing if you have one or more risk factors for HIV.

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