HIV Testing Explained: Q&A

When it comes to HIV testing, there is always something new to learn. Over the last couple of years, what we’ve seen from the COVID-19 response is a proactiveness from people wanting to know more about health, and asking questions to help inform their own health which is a great practice to apply to sexual health as well.

This article covers some of the most frequently asked HIV testing questions along with some of the basics. Let’s answer some of your questions about HIV testing!

What is an HIV test?

An HIV test involves drawing blood to detect the presence of HIV. There are a few different types of tests but the most well-known is a standard blood test. It doesn’t take long and doesn’t hurt much either (just a little pinprick, usually to the arm).

The blood sample is then sent to a laboratory, and the two most common ways it can be used to test for HIV are called an antibody test and an antigen test (terms that you might be familiar with from COVID-19 testing).

How do these tests detect HIV?

Science alert! Put simply, HIV antibody tests detect antibodies. If you have contracted HIV, your immune system will start producing antibodies that react to the virus within 2-12 weeks following exposure.

An antigen test will detect HIV infection at an earlier stage than HIV antibody tests. These tests measure quantities of a protein known as the p24 antigen, which is part of the virus and is produced in high amounts early on after contracting HIV.

In the case where antibodies are detected, another test will be done to confirm the result. You can get these tests through sexual health clinics and doctor/general practices (GPs) across the state.

What HIV tests are used in Australia?

There are four different types of HIV tests available in Australia – each with different benefits.

  1. Standard blood test: This test is most common across all testing sites and will usually be collected by either a nurse or a pathologist, depending on where you get tested. Getting your result doesn’t take long – usually just a few days.
  2. Rapid HIV test: These tests can give you your results in around 30 minutes and are sometimes available at sexual health clinics.
  3. HIV self-test: Instead of having the test done at a clinic by a medical professional, HIV self-tests allow you to conduct the test yourself, and you can complete it in the privacy of your own home. Comparatively, HIV self-tests also offer fast HIV testing results in a similar timeframe to rapid tests.
  4. Dried Blood Spot (DBS) test: Also a self-performed test, DBS tests involves collecting a few drops of blood from your finger and allowing the blood to dry on a test card. You then post the card to a lab to get tested and wait around a week to get the result back.

HIV self-tests and DBS tests are great options if you are getting tested for the first time or if you are concerned about privacy, as they’re easy to access and can be performed discreetly. However, these tests only look for HIV, so if you are sexually active, it’s recommended you seek out a comprehensive sexual health screen through a doctor/GP or sexual health clinic to test for HIV and other STIs.

Where can I get an HIV test?

You can get an HIV test (and other STI tests) at your local doctor/GP, a sexual health clinic, a community-driven testing facility or even in the comfort of your own home.

  • TESTING AT YOUR LOCAL DOCTOR/GP OR SEXUAL HEALTH CLINIC: To find a local testing location, try our where to get tested It’s as simple as punching in your postcode or address and a list of testing sites nearby will pop up with their contact information.
  • COMMUNITY-DRIVEN HIV TESTING: a[TEST] is a rapid HIV testing and STI screening service for guys who have sex with guys, located in the hub of Sydney’s gay district; Oxford Street, Darlinghurst. The clinic offers rapid HIV testing and a full STI screen for cis and trans men, for free.
  • AT-HOME HIV TESTING: The you[TEST] service links you up with a peer educator (a fellow queer guy from the community) who will have a video chat with you about your HIV testing options (either an HIV self-test or DBS test) and explain the testing process. You’ll then be sent your HIV test via the post for you to do the test yourself.

How accurate is an HIV rapid test?

As with all modern HIV testing, HIV rapid tests are highly accurate, though they may be less sensitive when compared to a traditional blood test. The standard blood test that gets sent to a laboratory is better at detecting an early infection, though if you are testing outside of the ‘HIV window period’, your rapid HIV test should still give you a reliable result.

The HIV window period is the time between infection and when the virus can be reliably detected from a test. It takes time for HIV to be detected in the body by a test, and while most people who’ve had unprotected exposure to HIV will test positive within one month after exposure, a small number of people may take up to three months. So, if you test negative on a rapid HIV test after three months from your potential exposure to HIV, and if there has been no risk in the meantime, you should be able to trust your result. Read more about HIV and the window period here.

A reactive (or positive result) on a rapid test, will always need to be confirmed by getting a standard blood test through your doctor/GP or sexual health clinic.

How soon can a blood test detect HIV?

After exposure to HIV, it usually takes between 2 weeks to 3 months for the virus to show up in someone’s blood. This is called the ‘window period’. The person is highly infectious during this time, which increases the risk of HIV being passed on between sexual partners, as they often do not yet know that they are positive.

How do I do an HIV test at home?

Whether getting to a testing clinic isn’t feasible for you, if you feel anxious about testing or if you just like the privacy home testing can afford you, HIV home testing is a great option for many.

You can order testing kits to your home with either a Dried Blood Spot (DBS) testing kit or an HIV self-testing kit. The you[TEST] service allows you to order either of these kits for no cost, and you’ll be given a virtual appointment with a trained peer educator who will explain the testing instructions and answer any lingering questions you may have.

Are HIV tests free?

Good news! HIV testing is always free at public sexual health clinics across NSW. In addition, HIV tests are free when visiting the doctor/GP if you have access to Medicare and they offer bulk billing. If you can’t get to a clinic or doctor/GP and want to do an HIV self-test at home, you can get that for free through the you[TEST] or Dried Blood Spot (DBS) test services.

How often should I get an HIV test?

For sexually active guys who have sex with other guys, the recommendation to test for HIV is once every three months. That means if you’ve had even one partner in the last three months you should still be getting tested!

Can I get tested for other STIs at the same time as an HIV test?

Pro-tip: If you’re getting an HIV test at a clinic or with a doctor/GP where you have the option to test for other STIs, then it’s worth your while to do so. A comprehensive sexual health screen for gay, bi, and other guys who have sex with guys should include:

  • Blood test for HIV and syphilis
  • Mouth swab for chlamydia and gonorrhoea
  • Bum swab for chlamydia and gonorrhoea
  • Urine sample for chlamydia and gonorrhoea

While your health professional will conduct the blood test and mouth swab, collection of the bum swab and urine sample is usually done by yourself in privacy, so you don’t need to drop your pants in the presence of the nurse or doctor.

If you don’t think you’re getting all the tests you need, you can mention this list above which is standard for gay and bisexual men (cis and trans), or you might consider showing this resource to your health professional.