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Information about HIV Testing

for Veterans and the Public

Information about HIV Testing

What is the HIV test?

This test can tell if you have human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS. HIV weakens the body's immune system; if people with HIV are not treated, they eventually will become sick and die. The HIV test is usually done using blood taken from a vein with a needle. Sometimes it can be done using blood from sticking your finger or fluid from inside your mouth (oral fluid). If your first test is done with oral fluid or blood from a finger stick and is positive, we will take blood from a vein for a second test to confirm the results.

Why does VA want to test me for HIV?

Testing is recommended for all patients, even those who do not think they may have been exposed to HIV. For some patients who have had possible exposures or who have symptoms suggesting they might have HIV infection, repeat testing may be recommended.

How will the HIV test help me?

If you have HIV, the sooner you know, the sooner you can take steps to stay healthy. People infected with HIV may have no symptoms for many years but the virus steadily damages the immune system. If it is not treated, it weakens the immune system so severely that the person can get serious infections or cancers and may die. The late stage of HIV is called AIDS. Infected people can pass the virus to others. But, there are very effective treatments that help people with HIV live long and healthy lives, and to prevent passing HIV to others.

What does the test involve?

  • HIV testing within VA is voluntary and confidential. It is up to you to decide whether you want to be tested.
  • Before deciding, you will be given educational materials on HIV and HIV testing. VA also encourages you to ask your provider any questions you may have.
  • If you give your consent to be tested, an HIV test will be done with a sample of blood or with fluid (saliva) from inside your mouth. For the blood test, blood is drawn either from an arm or from a finger with a needlestick. For the oral-fluid test, a swab is used to brush the inside of your mouth.
  • The type of test you can get depends on what is offered by your VA facility.

Traditional blood test results are available in 1-2 days. Some facilities offer rapid tests that provide preliminary results in around 20 minutes. However, it is important to know that all patients who have positive results on the first test must be retested with a second 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. An HIV result is considered "truly" positive only if two different tests are positive.

What are the possible risks of this test?

  • You may feel sad, depressed, angry, or anxious if you learn you have HIV. This is natural. If these feelings are severe, your provider can refer you to someone at VA who can help you.
  • If other people find out about the HIV diagnosis, some people may treat you unfairly.

Protecting your privacy

VA will not give your HIV test results to anyone except your caregivers or providers unless you give permission in writing except 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 VA needs the information to see if you qualify for VA benefits
  • With a specific health care provider in an emergency, if the information is required to provide you with medical care
  • To report to public health authorities
  • If ordered by a court of law
  • If the Department of Defense requests it (to use for treatment or benefits)
  • If Congress requests it for VA program oversight (your name will not be used)
  • For VA-approved scientific research (your name will not be used)
  • To evaluate patient care
  • If you are having condomless sex with someone and will not tell him/her your HIV status, the provider can tell your partner to protect his/her health. It is important to know, though, that different states have different laws about disclosing someone's HIV status. Your provider can advise you about the requirements in your state.

Can having an HIV test affect my VA Benefits?

  • Your HIV test result will not affect your VA care or your eligibility for VA benefits.
  • You have the right to refuse HIV testing without losing medical benefits or any right to care.

What happens if I refuse to have this test?

You have the right to refuse to have this test done. If you refuse, your health care providers may not have all the information needed to take the best care of you.

What are the alternatives to having this test done in VA?

You can have an HIV test done outside VA. If you have a test done outside VA, you will have to pay any cost yourself. In some places you can get an HIV test done anonymously (without giving your name).

What HIV test results mean

When testing is completed, the result is reported to your provider. Your provider will tell you the result. Possible results are:

Positive: result means that you have an HIV infection. Your provider will discuss treatment and may refer you to a specialist for HIV care.

Negative: result means either you do not have HIV or you got it so recently that your body has not had time to make enough antibodies to be detected by the test. If your result is negative but other things seem to point to HIV as a possibility, you should have the test repeated later.

Indeterminate: means that the test did not show whether or not you have HIV. This could happen if you have another medical condition that interfered with the test or you have been infected recently. If you have an indeterminate HIV test result, you need to have an HIV test repeated at a later date to find out for sure if you have HIV.

What do I need to know about how HIV spreads from person to person?

  • HIV can be transmitted by:
    • Unprotected (without a condom) sexual contact
    • Sharing needles, syringes, or "works" (cookers and other things used to prepare drugs for injection) during drug use
    • From an HIV-infected woman to her baby during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding
  • You can reduce risk of becoming infected by:
    • Not having sex
    • Using a condom every time you have sex with a partner that you don't know to currently be HIV negative
    • Taking medication to prevent HIV -- this is called preexposure prophylaxis, or PrEP; discuss this with your health care provider if you think you are at risk of getting infected with HIV
    • For pregnant women, there are medications that will improve your health and reduce the risk to the baby
    • Injection drug users can reduce risk by:
      • Not injecting drugs
      • Never sharing needles, syringes, or works
      • Taking medication to prevent HIV called preexposure prophylaxis, or PrEP; Discuss this with your health care provider

You should find out how and when you will get your HIV test results. If your HIV test is positive, you can get care at VA. Your provider may refer you to another medical professional for follow-up care.