Types of HIV tests (including rapid tests)
There are number of different tests used to detect HIV. The most common tests are described below.
These are tests that involve taking blood from a vein and sending it to a laboratory for analysis.
The HIV antibody test
The HIV antibody test is a blood test to find out if you have come into contact with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV.
If you have come into contact with the virus your immune system will produce antibodies to fight the infection and these will be detected in the test. Usually, antibodies are produced between 2 – 8 weeks following infection with HIV, but it can take longer for the tests to detect them (see window period below) in some people.
If the test is positive another test will be done to confirm the result. When the result is confirmed it means that you have HIV - that you’re HIV-positive.
A p24 antigen test will detect HIV infection at an earlier stage than an HIV antibody test. p24 antigen is a protein that is part of the HIV virus; it is produced in high quantities early in the process of HIV infection and is detectable during this time.
In Australia, most laboratories currently use tests which test for both HIV antibodies and p24 antigen.
The 'window period'
The window period refers to the time it can take from when someone becomes infected until a test can detect the infection. This may vary depending on the test a laboratory uses, but can be up to 3 months.
Rapid HIV tests
‘Rapid’ HIV tests are performed with devices that provide results within approximately 10 to 20 minutes.
The window period can be a little longer for rapid HIV tests than laboratory tests, so for someone who has had a recent possible exposure to HIV, laboratory testing is recommended.
Most rapid HIV tests detect HIV antibodies; however some tests can also test for the presence of the virus itself. This can be more accurate in detecting recent HIV infections.
A ‘reactive’ (or preliminary positive) result on a rapid HIV test is not a diagnosis of HIV infection, as rapid HIV tests produce a small number of false positive results. For this reason, a reactive rapid HIV test result must always be confirmed by laboratory tests.
Australia’s regulatory body for medical drugs and devices, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), has approved several rapid HIV test devices for use in Australia. The TGA approval limits use of the test to clinical situations, and testing must be carried out by appropriately trained workers. No rapid HIV tests have yet been approved for home use in Australia.
Since the TGA's approval of these rapid testing devices in Australia a number of sexual health centres, GPs and community-based testing services are offering rapid HIV testing in a number of states and territories. Testing sites are planned for other locations in future. View list of testing services.
Why should I test?
You should consider an HIV test if you think you may have been exposed to HIV.
Having unprotected anal sex (i.e. without a condom), unprotected vaginal sex, or sharing injecting equipment are all activities that can put you at risk of HIV infection by allowing bodily fluids (e.g. blood, semen, rectal fluid, pre-ejaculatory fluid (pre-cum) or vaginal fluid) to enter your body, and possibly your bloodstream. If the bodily fluid contains HIV, this can lead to HIV infection.
Regular testing as part of a routine is also a good idea.
How often should I test?
If you are a gay man who was tested some time ago and have been practising safe sex since, it is still recommended that you test again every 12 months.
Condoms are not always 100% effective, and you may not always know whether a condom has broken during a sexual encounter.
Gay men and other men who have sex with men are recommended to have a full sexual health check (tests for all STIs, including HIV), at least once a year, and up to four times a year if they are in one or more of these categories:
- any unprotected anal sex
- more than 10 sexual partners in 6 months
- participate in group sex
- use recreational drugs during sex.
Signs and symptoms
Some people who are in the process of becoming HIV infected — the process is referred to as seroconversion — have a collection of signs and symptoms known as a 'seroconversion illness'.
A seroconversion illness may include a rash, fever, aching body, fatigue or a simple persistent flu-like illness. Many of these signs and symptoms of a seroconversion illness are easy to overlook, are often vague and can be similar to the symptoms of other illnesses.
If you have never tested for HIV before
When you have the antibody test, you should receive some counselling or discussion both before you take the test and when you receive your test results. This is to ensure that you are fully informed about the test, and about the implications of testing HIV-positive.
Not knowing your HIV status is your choice, but knowing that you are HIV-positive or HIV-negative can provide you with options for taking care of yourself and others.
If you are in fact HIV-positive, then early diagnosis and treatment can help you stay healthy. Knowing your HIV status is part of being in control of your health and will probably cause less anxiety than not knowing.
If you are in a relationship and you and your partner are considering having sex without using a condom, you both need to go through a process of having a number of HIV tests and continuing to use condoms until you can both be certain that neither of you has HIV.
It is also important that if you and your partner have agreements about sex outside the relationship that you stick to them.
Where can I test?
Rapid Testing is available in most states and territories. View listing of rapid test locations.
For information about where to find a gay friendly doctor, call your local AIDS Council.
Sexual health clinics provide free and confidential testing services. Download the Register of Public Sexual Health Clinics here.
You can also find details for a range of clinics where you can get tested, including public sexual health clinics, on the Drama Downunder, Ending HIV and Time to Test websites.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people can find details of where to test on the Better to Know website.
I have just got a positive test result
You may find the Recently Diagnosed page on this website useful. You can also call your local AIDS Council or People Living With HIV (PLHIV) group to find out where you can get support and information in your area.
AIDS Councils and PLHIV groups are listed here.
Australia's policy on HIV testing
The Australasian Society of HIV Medicine (ASHM) Testing Portal website provides information about current HIV testing policy.
- testing is demonstrably of the highest possible standard and timely;
- testing should be voluntary and performed with informed consent;
- test results will remain confidential (i.e. only the person being tested and the person providing the results will be entitled to information necessary to identify the individual result). Exceptions to this principle are identified in the Policy;
- testing must be accessible to all those at risk of HIV infection;
- testing is critical to the interruption of transmission on a population level;
- testing is of benefit to the person being tested and the critical trigger to initiating interventions including treatment;
- testing is critical to understanding the epidemiology of HIV infection in the community;
- anonymous testing should be available to individuals, subject to the need to obtain sufficient demographic information from those being tested to allow accurate aggregate information to contribute to surveillance.
This page was published on 12 January, 2011
This page was reviewed on 15 March 2016
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