HIV may seem like a distant health threat—something that affects other people, but not you. Yet, you should be tested at least once for this deadly virus, according to health experts. Up to a quarter of people with HIV don't know they have it, because symptoms may not show up for years. Screening is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones.
HIV gradually destroys the body's immune system. It specifically attacks CD4 cells. As the virus spreads, a person becomes more susceptible to infections and diseases. Eventually, he or she develops AIDS. Without treatment, AIDS typically results in death.
You can't get HIV through casual contact. It spreads through exposure to infected blood, semen, breast milk, and vaginal and rectal fluid. It's most commonly transmitted when a person has unprotected sex with an infected person. Other potential routes of infection include sharing contaminated drug needles, being born to a mother with the virus, or receiving tainted blood during a transfusion.
Scientists have yet to find a cure for HIV. But early diagnosis and treatment can help slow the virus' progression. In particular, antiretroviral medications can prolong infected people's lives. It can also reduce the likelihood of infecting others.
Screening can help stop the spread of HIV by identifying people with the virus. They can then receive proper medical care, including antiretroviral therapy. Based on the latest research, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now recommends HIV screening at least once for people ages 15 to 65, including pregnant women.
People at high risk for HIV should consider annual or more regular testing for the virus. Groups that may benefit from more frequent testing include people with multiple sexual partners and intravenous drug users.
HIV testing is quick. It includes either a blood test or a saliva swab. Your insurance company is required by law to cover the cost. You can arrange a screening through your doctor. Or you can call your state's local HIV/AIDS hotline to find a testing site near you.
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HIV testing has never been easier or more confidential. You can now purchase self-testing kits over the counter. Some tests require you to send a swab of saliva or a finger prick of blood to a lab. Other kits work like a pregnancy test. They can give you results in as little as 20 minutes.
These tests detect antibodies—not HIV—in your body. Antibodies are substances that help fight infections. With HIV, it can take up to 3 months for antibodies to appear. As a result, you may have to do repeat testing, especially if you have engaged in high-risk behavior. Talk with your doctor if the test is positive. Additional blood work is needed to confirm the result.
Research has shown that at-home test kits are an acceptable and effective way to screen for HIV. One caveat: Check that the kit has been approved by the FDA to ensure accurate results.
CDC - HIV/AIDS Basics
National HIV and STD Testing Resources - HIV Testing
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - AIDS.gov