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Information on HIV Testing--Version 2

for Veterans and the Public

Information on HIV Testing

What is the condition or diagnosis for which this test is recommended?

This test is for diagnosis of infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) -- the virus that causes AIDS. This test may be recommended for people who are healthy but who have possibly been exposed to HIV, or for patients who have a medical problem that could be related to HIV or AIDS. HIV is a virus that weakens the body's immune system, making it hard to fight infections and cancer. For many years after infection with HIV, a person may have no symptoms but still suffer steady damage to the immune system. And persons with HIV can pass the virus to others. If HIV is not treated, an infected person eventually becomes very sick and may die. The advanced stage of HIV infection, when a person's immune system is very weak from the virus, is called AIDS.

What does this test involve?

This test detects antibodies that the body makes in response to HIV infection. Blood is taken with a needle or by pricking a finger. In some cases, this test may be done on fluid from inside your mouth (oral fluid). If your test is positive, the result must be confirmed with a different type of test. If your test is performed on blood from a vein and the first result is positive (indicating likely HIV infection), a second test will be done automatically to confirm the results. If your test is done using oral fluid or blood from a finger prick, and the result is positive (indicating likely HIV infection), blood must be taken from a vein for a second test to confirm the results.

What are the expected benefits of this test?

This test is the only way to know if you have been infected with HIV. If you have HIV, the sooner you know, the sooner you can take steps to remain healthy. Many effective treatments are available for HIV, and VA can provide these as part of your medical care. These treatments can prevent AIDS and can help patients who are infected with HIV live long and healthy lives. Treatment can also help prevent spreading the virus to others. If you do not have HIV, you can take steps to avoid becoming infected -- ask your VA provider for recommendations about this.

If you are pregnant or thinking about becoming pregnant, learning whether you have HIV will make it possible for you to make important decisions to protect your health and the health of your child.

What are the possible risks of this test?

You may feel sad, depressed, angry or anxious if you learn you are infected with HIV. This is natural, but if these feelings are severe, your medical provider can refer you to a counselor who can help you deal with the emotional response to your test result.

People who are infected with HIV may not feel sick and, with treatment, will live for many years. However, they are sometimes treated unfairly or badly by others who learn they have HIV. In most cases, the results of your HIV test cannot be given to anyone except persons directly involved in your care unless you give written permission. VA may share records, including HIV test results, with others inside or outside VA without your prior written permission ONLY IN THESE SPECIAL CASES:

  • within VA for medical care
  • with a VA health care provider or employee in case an employee comes into contact with your blood, such as by an accidental needle-stick
  • within VA if the information is needed to see whether you qualify for VA benefits
  • with a specific health care provider in an emergency if the information is needed to provide you with medical care
  • to report to public health authorities
  • for a court-ordered disclosure of HIV test results;
  • if the Armed Forces requests it (to use for Department of Defense treatment or benefits)
  • if Congress requests it for VA program oversight (no names are used)
  • for VA-approved scientific research (no names are used)
  • for evaluation of VA's care for patients
  • to your current sexual partner(s) or a spouse if you will not tell them you are infected with HIV and this information is needed to protect their health

Your care in VA and your eligibility for VA benefits will not be affected by the results of your HIV test.

What are the alternatives to this test?

HIV testing is voluntary and you may decide not to be tested for HIV, or to be tested somewhere else. Some places offer HIV testing without using your name. This is called anonymous testing.

What will the test results mean?

The HIV test is very accurate, but it is important to know what the test results mean, and that sometimes a test result can be incorrect.

HIV Positive: If you have a positive HIV test result, this means that you have HIV and that you can pass it to others. People who test HIV positive should make an appointment for medical evaluation. People who test positive should take steps to prevent passing HIV to others.

HIV Negative:If you have a negative HIV test result, it means that the test did not show evidence of HIV at that time. If you were infected with HIV in recent months, the test could be falsely negative because antibodies to HIV had not yet developed. If you have done something in the past 6 months that puts you at risk of being infected with HIV, you should take the test again in 1-3 months, or talk with your provider about the possibility of doing additional testing.

Indeterminate:If you receive an indeterminate HIV test result, this means that the test did not show whether or not you have HIV. That could happen if you have HIV but it was too early for the test result to turn positive, or if you have another medical condition that was influencing the test. If you have an indeterminate HIV test result, you need to have an HIV test repeated at a later date to tell for sure whether you have HIV.

You should find out how you are going to get the results of your HIV test. If your HIV test is positive, you may be referred to another medical professional for follow-up care.

How is HIV spread?

Whether your test is positive or negative, it is important for you to know how HIV is passed from one person to another. HIV is spread mostly by sexual contact and through sharing needles, syringes, or "works" (cookers and other things used to prepare drugs for injection) during drug use. HIV can also be passed from an infected mother to her unborn child before birth, during delivery, or by breast-feeding.

You cannot tell if someone has HIV by the way the person looks or acts. Also, many people do not know whether or not they have HIV. For this reason, whenever you have sex without a condom -- oral, anal, or vaginal sex -- or share injecting equipment, you risk getting infected with HIV, unless your partner definitively is HIV negative. You can reduce this risk either by not having sex or by using a condom every time you have any kind of sex. If you use drugs you can avoid contact with HIV by not injecting drugs or by never sharing needles or works.

If your test for HIV is positive, you should tell your spouse or sex partner(s) and anyone you have shared needles or works with so that they can get tested. If you are not able to tell your spouse or sex partner, VA can help by referring you to a public health official who can notify your partner that they may have been exposed to HIV without revealing your name.

If you are pregnant or you are considering becoming pregnant, a positive HIV test means that you could infect your child. You will need medications to protect your own health and maximize the chances your child will be born free of infection.