The only way to find out if you have HIV is to have an HIV test, as symptoms of HIV may not appear for many years. Anyone who thinks they could have HIV should get tested.
HIV testing is provided to anyone free of charge on the NHS. Many clinics can give you the result on the same day. Home testing and home sampling kits are also available.
Some people are at particularly high risk of becoming infected with HIV and may be advised to have regular tests.
When to get tested
Seek medical advice immediately if you think there's a chance you could have HIV. The earlier it's diagnosed, the earlier you can start treatment and avoid becoming seriously ill.
Some HIV tests may need to be repeated 1-3 months after exposure to HIV infection, but you should not wait this long to seek help.
A GP or a sexual health professional can talk to you about having a test and discuss whether you should take emergency HIV medicine.
Anti-HIV medicine called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) may stop you becoming infected if taken within 72 hours of being exposed to the virus.
Where to get an HIV test
There are various places you can go to for an HIV test, including:
- sexual health or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics
- clinics run by charities like the Terrence Higgins Trust
- some GP surgeries
- some contraception and young people's clinics
- local drug dependency services
- an antenatal clinic, if you're pregnant
- a private clinic, where you will have to pay
There are also home sampling and home testing kits you can use if you do not want to visit any of these places.
Types of HIV test
There are 4 main types of HIV test:
- blood test – where a sample of blood is taken in a clinic and sent for testing in a laboratory. Results are usually available on the same day or within a few days
- point of care test – where a sample of saliva from your mouth or a small spot of blood from your finger is taken in a clinic. This sample does not need to be sent to a laboratory and the result is available within a few minutes
- home sampling kit – where you collect a saliva sample or small spot of blood at home and send it off in the post for testing. You'll be contacted by phone or text with your result in a few days. Visit the free HIV testing website to check if you're eligible for a free test. If not, you can buy them online or from some pharmacies
- home testing kit – where you collect a saliva sample or small spot of blood yourself and test it at home. The result is available within minutes. It's important to check that any test you buy has a CE quality assurance mark and is licensed for sale in the UK, as HIV self-tests available from overseas can be poor quality
If the test finds no sign of infection, your result is "negative". If signs of infection are found, the result is "positive".
The blood test is the most accurate test and can normally give reliable results from 1 month after infection.
The other tests tend to be less accurate and may not give a reliable result for a longer period after exposure to the infection. This is known as the window period.
For all these tests, a blood test should be carried out to confirm the result if the first test is positive.
If this test is also positive, you'll be referred to a specialist HIV clinic for some more tests and a discussion about your treatment options.
Screening for HIV in pregnancy
If you're pregnant, you'll be offered a blood test to check if you have HIV as part of routine antenatal screening.
If untreated, HIV can be passed to your baby during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. Treatment in pregnancy greatly reduces the risk of passing HIV on to the baby.