For people who engage in high-risk activities (such as unprotected sex, or injecting drugs), regular HIV testing is recommended at least once a year and, ideally, every 3 to 6 months in particularly high-risk cases.
For most people who are at low risk of contracting HIV, regular testing is not required, but is recommended before sleeping with a new sexual partner.
It’s important to understand that no HIV test can accurately detect HIV immediately after exposure.
This is because the body takes a while until it starts producing enough anti-HIV antibodies (which the tests typically screen for) after the moment of the infection. This timeframe is known as the “window” period, and reliable results are not possible during it.
The “window” period varies from person to person, and can last anywhere from 10 days to 3 months. Its duration depends on the body’s immune response.
During the “window” period, a person may test HIV-negative even if they are infected; they can also transmit the virus to others.
Certain types of tests are able to get accurate results sooner than others:
If using a sophisticated testing process called Nucleic Acid Amplification Testing (NAT), lab tests can detect infection as early as 10 to 33 days after exposure.
Antigen/antibody tests performed on blood from a vein can usually detect HIV infection 18 to 45 days after an exposure.
However, note that laboratory analysis of HIV tests typically requires several days to process.
Antigen/antibody tests done with blood from a finger prick can take anywhere from 18 to 90 days after exposure to detect HIV, and the most commonly available antibody tests can take 23 to 90 days to detect HIV infection. For reliable results, at-home testing is recommended only after 90 days since exposure.
At-home tests are typically rapid, taking only 15-30 minutes to return results.
NOTE: Transmission may be more likely during the window period because there are higher levels of the virus in the infected person’s body. For this reason, anyone suspecting of having contracted HIV is advised to abstain from unprotected sexual intercourse until at least one test provides a negative result after a minimum of 3 months.
If transmission is suspected within 72 hours (ideally within 24 hours) after risky sexual intercourse, a combination of HIV drugs known as Post-Exposure Prophylaxis (PEP) may be taken to attempt to prevent the virus from taking hold. The person suspecting infection must visit their physician as soon as possible during this timeframe to begin PEP therapy.
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