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HIV Testing

You probably have heard that there is a blood test that detects whether you have been infected with the virus that causes AIDS. To help you make a decision about being tested, this brochure will explain what the test results mean and will examine the possible advantages and disadvantages of being tested.

Screening for Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infection

Fact Sheet on HIV Testing

What is the HIV test?

When HIV enters the body, the body produces antibodies in response to the virus. The HIV antibody test, more commonly called the HIV test, detects the presence of these antibodies in a small sample of blood usually drawn from the arm. The test does not detect whether you have AIDS — it only tells you if your body has produced antibodies in response to HIV.

While there is a test that detects levels of the AIDS virus itself is in the body, this test is not routinely administered at HIV antibody testing sites and clinics. It is available only upon special request by a doctor.

What does HIV-positive mean?

If you have developed antibodies to the virus, you are HIV-positive. This means that at some point you were exposed to the virus and have been infected with HIV. Being HIV-positive does not mean that you now have AIDS or that you will definitely develop AIDS in the nearfuture. Some people may remain in good health for long periods of time. Others may develop various HIV-related illnesses, but without any of the major infections usually associated with an AIDS diagnosis. Others may develop full-blown AIDS anywhere from three to ten years after infection.

Being HIV-positive does not mean that you are immune to the virus. Antibodies to HIV, unlike most other antibodies, seem to provide no lasting protection against the disease. Being HIV-positive does not mean that you can no longer have sex. Just make sure that you practice safer sex every time you have sex.

What does HIV-negative mean?

If you have not developed antibodies to the virus, you are HIV-negative. However, a negative test result does not guarantee that you are virus-free. Your body can take up to three months after infection with HIV to produce antibodies. If you take the test after you have been infected with HIV, but before your body has had enough time to produce antibodies, you will test negative. You should test again six months later, having practiced safer sex, to confirm that you are not infected with HIV. A negative test result does not mean that you cannot transmit the virus to someone else. You need to be periodically retested in the following year, while continuing to practice safer sex.

What are the advantages of taking the test?

There are several reasons to consider taking the HIV antibody test.

If you're positive, there are things you can do right now to keep yourself healthy. But you need to know your HIV status to get the treatments that can keep you well. Most important, you can get treatments to prevent AIDS-related pneumonia (PCP) — at little or not cost. Remember: You are not alone. GMHC can help you get the support and information you need to manage living with HIV.

If you test negative, you can stay that way. If staying safe seems like a struggle, if drinking or drugs are getting in the way, or if you feel hopeless, GMHC can help you. You are not alone and you can get support to make changes.

Home-Use Tests for HIV

What are the disadvantages of taking the test?

People taking the test may feel a variety of strong feelings. People who learn that they are HIV-positive may feel depressed, anxious, afraid, helpless and worried about being shunned by their lovers, families, friends and co-workers.

Another possible disadvantage of taking the HIV antibody test is that you may be denied services or suffer discrimination if you are HIV-positive. If insurance companies find out that you are HIV-positive, or even that you took the test, they may attempt to deny or take away your health or life insurance coverage. Some doctors, dentists, landlords, employers and schools have also discriminated against people who are HIV-positive even though this is illegal in New York. If you believe you have been discriminated against, call the New York City Commission on Human Rights at 212-306-7500.

If you do not have health insurance, try to get it before being tested. Many group insurance programs available at the workplace do not require medical screening. Once you have been granted medical coverage, it is very difficult for the insurance company to discontinue it because you test HIV-positive.

Getting good health care can be difficult if you don't have insurance. Think about your options for medical care as you make a decision to be tested. Call the GMHC Hotline at (212) 807-6655/TTY (212) 645-7470 for more information about the HIV test and the availability of low cost health care in your community.

How can I make sure that my test results are kept confidential?

The New York City and New York State Health Departments have set up free testing centers in all five boroughs where they do not require you to give your name, address or any other identifying information. To make an appointment at any of these testing centers, or to get more information and anonymous counseling, call the New York City Department of Health AIDS Hotline at 212-447-8200.

Many private doctors and public and private hospitals also administer the antibody test. New York State law requires that you sign a form indicating that you understand the test and agree to be tested. Your test results in most cases are permanently recorded on your medical chart. While these test results are supposed to be kept confidential, there have been instances in which a patient's HIV status has been disclosed to insurance companies and others without his or her consent or knowledge. If you suspect that you might be HIV-positive, you should not donate blood. The Red Cross will test your blood and if it finds that you are HIV-positive, your name will be placed on a "blind" donor deferral list, which does not disclose the reason for the deferral and which is shared only among blood banks.

As a general rule, to protect yourself against possible discrimination, you should be cautious about disclosing that you took the test and your test results to anyone other than trusted friends and family, sexual partners and health care professionals. New York State law now protects confidentiality in most circumstances. There is also an HIV Testing Bill of Rights available through the GMHC Client Advocacy office. If you feel that your confidentiality has been violated, call the New York State AIDS Hotline at 1-800-541-2437.

What supports do I need besides health care?

To help you cope with your reactions to your test results, it is important to set up a support network of people you trust before you take the test. Discuss your questions and fears about the HIV test and AIDS with a trained counselor both before and after you take the test. In New York State, all official anonymous HIV testing centers have counselors on staff. In most cases, it is illegal to be tested for HIV in New York State without giving written consent, and receiving pre- and post-test counseling. However, some hospitals and doctors fail to provide adequate counseling.

The purpose of pre-test counseling is to make sure that you understand what the test will and will not tell you, and help you decide whether you are ready to take the test. Pre-test counseling will help prepare you in case you test positive. Post-test counseling will help you deal with any feelings and reactions you may have when you receive your test results. If you test HIV-positive your counselor can help you explore your psychological, medical and treatment options. If you test negative, you can get help to stay that way.

Under what circumstances may I be required to take the test?

Unfortunately, some forms of HIV antibody testing are mandatory. Insurance companies may require applicants for life and health insurance to take the HIV antibody test. The armed services, Job Corps, foreign service and Peace Corps routinely subject new recruits to the test, and federal prisons also test all inmates. Persons applying for permanent resident status (green card) will be required to take the test. In all of these cases, persons who are found to be HIV-positive may be excluded from insurance coverage, employment or permanent residence.

Who should I tell if I am HIV-positive?

Tell your doctor that you are HIV-positive so that s/he can monitor your health and not prescribe drugs that will harm your immune system.

Also, tell anyone who may be exposed to your blood, semen or vaginal fluid, including present and past sexual partners or needle sharing partners. If you do not want to inform these partners yourself, New York State law allows a physician or public health worker to inform them that they might be at risk for HIV infection. However, it is illegal for you to be identified by name as a possible source of infection.

Many people find that telling one or two trusted friends or relatives about their HIV status helps them to build a network of support for themselves. If you do not feel comfortable discussing this with anyone you know, you can discuss it with a counselor. There are also group services for people who are HIV-positive and several organizations have been created to provide this support.

How can I make sure that I will not transfer the virus to others?

To prevent transmitting HIV, don't let your blood, semen or vaginal fluid enter another person's body. This means practicing safer sex every time you have sex.

Do not donate blood, semen, organs or tissue. If you are a woman who is HIV-positive, seek counseling if you're thinking about getting pregnant, because the virus can be passed from a mother to her fetus during pregnancy, birth or breast feeding. HIV has been found in menstrual blood, so if you have sex during menstruation, continue practicing safer sex.

What can I do if I'm HIV-positive?

Exercising, eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet, avoiding stress and getting enough sleep can add to the overall quality of your health. Cigarettes, excessive alcohol and recreational drugs can reduce your body's ability to fight off infections. Find a doctor or clinic where you can get regular medical checkups to monitor your health. Talk with your health care provider about your health and your treatment options. Ask questions about anything you don't understand. Educate yourself about HIV treatments and disease. Take an active role in promoting your health.