The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). The virus gets its name because it infects and damages part of the immune system — the body's natural defense system.
Often the only way to know if someone is infected with HIV is through testing. That's because people who are HIV positive may not know that they have the virus. Most of the signs that someone has HIV don't show up until that person has developed full-blown AIDS. By that point, the person is sicker and the disease can be harder to treat, and they may have spread it to others without knowing.
Here are the facts on what's involved in getting tested — and who should get tested for HIV and why.
The only known way for HIV to be transmitted from one person to another is when it is spread through the fluids from an infected person's body. Thousands of U.S. teens become infected with HIV each year.
When teens in the United States become infected with HIV, it usually happens in one of two ways:
Children can be infected with HIV if an infected pregnant woman passes the virus to her unborn child. Treating the mother and child around the time the baby is delivered, delivering by cesarean section, and avoiding breastfeeding can reduce the baby's risk of infection.
If you have had unprotected sex (sex without a condom) or have shared needles with someone else, you should be tested for HIV. If you’ve had sex with a condom, you also should be tested since condoms are effective when used correctly, but are not perfect.
Early detection is key in fighting HIV and AIDS because:
Another reason to get tested is peace of mind: A negative test result can be a big relief for someone who is worried that he or she might be infected.
Most HIV tests don't actually look for the virus itself; they look for the antibodies that indicate HIV is present in the body.
When someone has HIV, the body's immune system makes antibodies to fight the virus. Unlike the antibodies our immune systems make that successfully fight off other infections, the antibodies to HIV cannot stop the virus. But their presence in great numbers is what appears in test results. The antibodies can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months to appear in detectable quantities. So when someone has an HIV test, it may not show an infection that could have occurred in the last 6 months.
People can get tested for HIV at a variety of different places, such as doctors' offices, health departments, hospitals, and sites that specialize in HIV testing. Some places, like certain clinics or hospitals, offer tests at little or no cost.
Anonymous Test Sites. An anonymous test site will never ask for a person's name or other identifying details. Instead, anyone being tested goes by a number and he or she is the only one who knows the results of the test. Although people go by numbers at anonymous sites, they aren't treated like just another number. Many anonymous sites have counselors available to talk with the person being tested, both before and after testing. No written record of the test result is kept at anonymous test sites.
Confidential Test Sites. Confidential testing means that at a certain point in the process the person being tested will need to identify themselves. The results may appear as a written report in his or her medical file.
Every state has different laws pertaining to HIV testing, so it's always a good idea to check to see what is available in a particular area.
Someone who tests positive for HIV should:
People who discover they are HIV positive may feel frightened, isolated, afraid to talk to friends and family, or worried that they will be discriminated against or misunderstood. Talking to a counselor or other mental health professional can help them deal with these and other feelings.
Some health clinics that specialize in HIV and AIDS offer counseling services or know of support groups for those living with HIV. These safe environments offer a chance to discuss any fears and get answers to questions from people who care and understand what someone with HIV is going through.
There is no cure for HIV, but having the virus is not the death sentence it once was. Governments and scientists are putting a lot of money and research into treating — and, hopefully, eventually curing or immunizing people against — HIV. With treatments improving rapidly, people who find out they have the disease today can look forward to living a normal life for many years to come.
Reviewed by: Larissa Hirsch, MD
Date reviewed: September 2010
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