It's understandable for anyone undergoing a HIV test to feel somewhat apprehensive or nervous.
However, getting a lab test or an HIV antibody test from a trusted health care provider is the only proven way to know if you have HIV or not.
Although an HIV diagnosis may seem daunting, the sooner a positive rest result is detected, the more time a person has to start treatment - as well as informing them of the risk factors and helping prevent them from spreading the virus further.
At iPlaySafe, we're passionate about educating people about sexually transmitted infections and breaking down the stigmas of discussing them. Our home STI test kits make HIV testing entirely confidential and painless.
HIV testing is crucial because this infection often goes undetected for a great deal of time, which means an increased chance of somebody unwittingly passing the virus on to others.
HIV typically displays itself initially as a flu-like illness between 2-6 weeks after a person is first exposed to the virus.
These initial flu-like symptoms, which include fever, fatigue, swollen glands and joint or muscle pain, are evidence that a person's immune system is attempting to fight off the HIV infection.
However, these initial symptoms typically subside after around 2-3 weeks - after which the virus can lie dormant and undetected for several years.
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, which means the virus itself targets a person's immune system and weakens it progressively over time.
Anyone at higher risk of contracting HIV - including having unprotected sex with someone who may be HIV positive, shared needles with someone or has multiple sexual partners - should undergo testing if they display these initial flu-like symptoms.
HIV is asymptomatic mainly after the initial infection; it will gradually damage a person's immune system if it remains undetected. During that time, they may appear healthy.
Once the infection has begun damaging their immune system, a person's symptoms can vary but often include recurrent infections, skin problems, weight loss, night sweats, and chronic diarrhoea.
HIV testing overview
Diagnostic testing for HIV usually involves taking swab samples from the inside of a person's mouth or using blood tests to identify the presence of any HIV antibodies.
The type of HIV test that a person may receive depends on the time passed from when they first came into contact with the virus.
The time between first contracting the virus and displaying symptoms is known as the window period, and it can take as long as 12 weeks before antibodies can be detected.
These HIV antibody tests are often referred to as ELISA or immunoassay tests and are one of the most accurate ways of detecting an HIV infection.
However, antibody tests are not the only way you can detect HIV.
Another option of testing is by doing an antibody/antigen combination test. This is a blood test that screens for HIV antibodies and a protein called p24, which is part of the virus's structure.
These combination tests can detect an HIV infection between 2-4 weeks after the initial infection and provide results in just 20 minutes - making them one of the fastest ways to get tested.
Rapid tests are another method of HIV testing that requires either a blood sample or oral fluid taken from a person's gums and mouth.
These rapid tests can detect an HIV infection after just ten days from being exposed; however, you will have to undergo a follow-up test to confirm the results if you get a positive test result.
The fourth option for HIV testing, readily available for anyone who needs it, is a home STI test kit. This would require you to take a blood and urine sample at home and return to a laboratory using the pre-paid envelope provided. Your results would be ready within 2-5 working days.
If your at-home test results are positive, you will have access to medical support to discuss your next steps.
If you receive a negative test result after an HIV infection lab test or an in-home test, it will mean one of two things - either you do not have HIV, or it is too early for the results to show.
A few decades ago, an HIV diagnosis was considered a death sentence - but now, thanks to the massive progress that science and medicine have made - this is far from the case. A positive test result means that you will need to begin taking HIV medicine immediately; however, you can still expect to live a full life.
Provided early treatment is sought out, you can delay the development of AIDS and live a comparatively long and normal life. However, you should inform your partner of any positive test results, as they may require HIV testing themselves as it is a sexually transmitted disease.
Where to get tested for HIV
The location of the testing sites in your local area can either be found online or through the information provided by the manufacturer of the test.
Taking a test is the only way to know if you have HIV; sites are positioned as conveniently as possible throughout every city to allow people to get the help they need.
Some of the most common places for HIV testing include charity run clinics, genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics or sexual health clinics, drug dependency services, certain GP's and some young people clinics and contraception clinics.
Additionally, pregnant women can undergo HIV testing at an antenatal clinic or a private clinic if they pay for their healthcare.
For those who wish to carry out testing from home, order an iPlaySafe test kit here.
HIV home testing
An HIV rapid self-test is one of the most common ways of finding out if you are HIV positive, as they produce rapid results in just 20 minutes or less and can be carried out from the comfort and safety of your home.
These self-testing kits use technology that closely resembles an at-home pregnancy test, only they require a blood sample to detect the presence of HIV antibodies.
The antibodies your body produces when your immune system is fighting off HIV are unique to the virus and are therefore a reliable indicator of whether or not the virus is present in your body.
In-home rapid HIV tests have been extensively tested and refined by scientists to the point that they are incredibly accurate and effective.
These tests have a proven clinical sensitivity of 99.7%, meaning that every 997 of 1000 positive results will be accurate.
If you test negative after taking a rapid test, the clinical sensitivity of the results is even higher, with a 99.9% accuracy rating out of every 1000 tests taken.
Anyone looking into doing in-home HIV testing should be aware that the rate at which a person's immune system develops antibodies when infected with HIV varies from case to case.
It can take up to 12 weeks for tests to accurately detect antibodies in someone infected. Therefore, anybody concerned they may have contracted the virus should try speaking with sexual health or medical professionals and arrange for a lab test.
Which is the most accurate test for HIV?
The most accurate way of detecting the HIV in your system is through a blood test - which can provide results you can trust from one month after exposure to the virus.
For those who are at high risk of HIV and are displaying flu-like symptoms commonly associated with recent exposure, a Nucleic Acid Test (NAT) is another option for immediate results.
Also known as an RNA test, an Nucleic Acid Test screens for HIV itself rather than the antibodies produced to fight it.
Doing so means that a NAT test can identify HIV after just 10 days from initial exposure - which is far faster than most other tests. However, a NAT test is also one of the most expensive and carried out in a laboratory.
An antigen-antibody test also requires that you visit a laboratory and may take several days before you get the results - although these tests are generally cheaper than getting a NAT.
The technology used in screening for HIV has excelled massively in recent years, and although misdiagnosis occasionally occurs, the odds are getting slimmer each year.
If you get a positive result from an in-home test, you should always follow it up by getting another laboratory test carried out (either an antigen/antibody or NAT) to confirm the diagnosis.
Is an HIV test the same as an AIDS test?
No, a positive diagnosis of HIV is not the same as having AIDS.
HIV causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) after developing and damaging a person's immune system.
While HIV testing is effective in identifying the presence of the virus, it does not inform you of how long you have had HIV or if it has developed into AIDS.
When should I get screened for HIV?
With HIV, the earlier you get tested, the higher the chances of it being treatable are.
Even for those who may not feel at risk of getting HIV, getting tested at least once a year is a great way of staying safe and protecting both yourself and any sexual partners.
This applies to anyone, even if they always practice safe sex.
It is advisable for men who have sex with men to screen for HIV every 3-6 months, depending on the frequency that they change sexual partners or have unprotected sex.
How long will I have to wait for the results of an HIV screening?
The length of time it takes to get results after testing for HIV varies depending on the type of test you carry out.
For a lab test result to come through, it can usually take between a matter of days or months, whereas if you carry out a rapid action or at-home test, the results can come through in just 20 minutes.
Will an HIV test always accurately detect HIV infection?
Not always. If a person has only recently contracted HIV, the test they carry out may not pick up signs of antibodies as they have not yet developed.
It is only after around 7-28 days from initial exposure that a test can definitively identify the presence of the virus.