HIV antibody tests can be taken four weeks after exposure to the virus; this is to allow time for the antibodies to develop. There are a variety of tests:
- Blood sample – this is collected and sent to a laboratory for testings. Same-day tests are offered in some services
- Saliva sample
- Finger-prick test.
A “negative” result indicates that there no sign of infection has been found; “false negatives are possible if the test is taken during the “window-period” where the antibodies are being produced. Another test should be taken, normally around four weeks to ensure antibody levels are high enough to be detected.
A “positive” result indicates that signs of infection have been found. All positive results need to be confirmed by retesting as it is sometimes possible to get a ‘false positive’, for example the test mistakenly detects antibodies that are fighting another infection for HIV infection.
If you have unprotected sex or feel that you may have been exposed to the virus it is important to be tested as any delay could allow the virus to damage your immune system; starting treatment early will be of benefit. You may also pass on the virus to someone else.
At-home HIV testing
In November 2015 a scheme was launched by Public Health England launched to offer ‘at-home’ HIV self-sampling kits to people who at a high risk of HIV infection such as men who have sex with men or people from black African communities. Kits can are requested online, they are discreet, are sent out by first class mail and contain everything needed to take a finger prick blood sample. Samples are returned in a prepaid envelope for testing and results are normally returned within five working days. People can choose how they receive their results and track the status of your test. If the results indicate that HIV infection is likely an invitation will be sent to attend a sexual health clinic to confirm the test.
HIV self-testing kits are available to buy online however quality varies so it is important to check for the CE quality assurance mark. Poor quality tests are may not give an accurate result.
HIV is not curable; it can be prevented and symptoms can be treated.
If you are HIV positive, you will need to discuss your treatment with your doctor and you will receive regular blood tests to check how your immune system is coping.
HIV is treated with drugs called anti-retrovirals. They work by stopping the HIV multiplying giving the immune system chance to repair itself.
A combination of anti-retrovirals is used as HIV adapts quickly adapt and may become resistant to them.
Emergency treatment for HIV
it is also possible to take anti-HIV medication called PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) If you think you may have been exposed to HIV within the last 72 hours (three days); it may stop you becoming infected. PEP is a 28-day treatment of powerful drugs and is not guaranteed to work. It is only recommended after high-risk of exposure (for example if a partner is known to be HIV positive).
AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection, when your body can no longer fight life-threatening infections. With early diagnosis and effective treatment, most people with HIV will not go on to develop AIDS.