for Veterans and the Public
What is the HIV test?
An HIV test determines whether you have been infected with HIV. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.
When you get infected with HIV, the HIV virus replicates itself and spreads through the body, and your body produces cells and particles (antibodies) to fight the virus.
There are different types of screening HIV tests, some that can detect both HIV itself (HIV antigen) and HIV antibodies, and some that detect only antibodies to HIV. If you have either HIV antigens or HIV antibodies, then you have been infected with HIV. The test does not tell you how long you have been infected, how sick you might be, or whether you have AIDS.
Most HIV tests require a sample of blood, though some can test fluid from inside the mouth.
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 material 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 (this is the most common) 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.
The rapid blood tests and the oral fluid tests generally are less sensitive than the standard laboratory HIV tests, and may not detect recent HIV infection. So, if you have a negative HIV test result, but you may have been exposed to HIV in recent weeks (or even months), you should be retested in the near future.
Do you need an appointment?
You may or may not need an appointment to get tested at your local VA Medical Center, as different sites may have different practices. In VA, all testing for HIV requires the verbal informed consent of the veteran.
Must you answer personal questions?
The health care provider may want to discuss your sexual or drug use history with you. This can help better assess your risk for HIV (and other infections) and provide you with some recommendations on how to reduce your risk for HIV or for transmitting HIV to others.
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.
Learn more about HIV disclosure policies and procedures in the U.S., and your legal rights.
Will VA tell my spouse or partner if I am HIV positive?
In VA your results are entered in your medical record, but there are strict laws in VA to protect the confidentiality of your HIV test results.
If you test HIV positive, however, it is important for your spouse or partner(s) to be tested for HIV, for the sake of their health and to prevent the infection from being passed to others. If you do have HIV, your health care provider can help you prepare to inform your partner(s) if you want or need help, and can arrange for them to be tested. Or your provider can arrange for them to be notified by a partner counseling and notification service through a local health department.
Your spouse or partner may be informed of your HIV status without your involvement only if it is clear that you have not told them, and your provider has determined that you are unlikely to do so.
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 your 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.
Are results anonymous?
If you are tested in the VA, your HIV results are entered in your medical record, so they are confidential but not anonymous. Anonymous testing means you are referred to by an identification number so that you do not have to give your name, and only you can match your number with your test result. For more information about where you can be tested anonymously, call 1-800-CDC-INFO.