HIV testing explained

Did you know that from January to September this year just under 465,000 HIV tests occurred in NSW? 🤯 That’s a lot of tests and really fantastic! However as good a news as that is, for a lot of guys in our communities, testing isn’t happening as often as recommended, which for sexually active guys who have sex with other guys is now four times a year.

For some people, things like not understanding the need to test, or what the testing process looks like can prevent them from getting a test. So this article is intended as a guide covering what makes up HIV and STI testing, where to get tested and how often to test. With this in mind, let’s start with the basics…

What is an HIV test

An HIV test involves drawing blood to detect the presence of HIV. Most doctors or healthcare providers usually call this a standard blood test. In the lab, the two most common ways the blood sample can be used to test for HIV are called an antibody test and an antigen test.

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 reacting 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 HIV 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 general practices across the state.

What are my HIV testing options?

There are several different types of HIV tests available, each with different benefits for the user.

If you are visiting a sexual health clinic then you might be able to get a rapid HIV test, which can give you your results within 30 minutes. Additionally, you’ll be given a blood test, which screens for HIV antibodies and the p24 antigen, to confirm your result. In places where rapid HIV testing is unavailable you will be given a standard blood test which takes a little longer for the result – usually a few days.

If you are living in an area where getting to a testing site is a bit more difficult, you can also order testing kits to your home with either a dried blood spot (DBS) testing kit or an HIV self-testing kit which you can purchase online.

What about testing for other STIs?

Pro-tip: If you’re getting tested at a clinic or with a 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, bisexual and other guys who have sex with guys should involve:

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

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.

It may seem like a lot of testing, but don’t worry – once you get into the rhythm of testing, it becomes second-nature. If you are visiting a clinic or a GP, and you are a guy who has sex with guys, this list of STI tests will likely be offered to you. It’s OK to ask questions and at the end of the day, when it comes to your health, you get the say! If you don’t think you’re getting all the tests you need you can mention this list which is standard for gay and bisexual men, or you might consider printing this resource off to share with your health professional.

Where to get tested

When you open Grindr, the first guys on your screen are usually the closest to your location. Makes sense – they’re likely the ones you can meet up with quicker and easier! Similarly, finding a testing site close to you makes things a whole lot more convenient, and you can do that by using our where to get tested tool. 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.

How often you should test

The good news is that knowing how often to test is now easier than ever before. Changes to the HIV and STI testing guidelines now state that sexually active guys should get tested four times a year! Simple.

What if I’m in a monogamous relationship?

If you’re in a monogamous relationship and have already tested to know that you are HIV negative, then you can test less frequently but should get to the clinic at least once a year.

What if I haven’t had any sex since my last HIV negative test result?

If you haven’t had any sex since your last negative test result and are certain you are HIV negative, then you don’t need to get a test. How to be sure you’re neg? You need to have had two tests took 3 months apart (called the window period) where you’ve had no sex in between the tests and the result for both was negative.

However, if this changes and you start getting some action, you should schedule an HIV and STI test and then continue to test every three months.

Regular HIV testing brings us closer to zero

In NSW we’ve seen some phenomenal results when it comes to decreasing HIV transmissions, and HIV testing has been one of the cornerstones of making that a reality. Through testing, those who have acquired HIV can be connected to treatment and care. Not only do HIV positive people have better health when on treatment, but we know that those who achieve a sustained undetectable viral load are unable to pass HIV onto their partners.

As long as we keep reducing the number of cases of undiagnosed HIV through testing, we’ll continue to see health benefits for all members in our communities!