HIV and HIV Tests
What are HIV and AIDS?
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) causes an infection that damages the immune system. The immune system is the part of the body that fights infection and disease.
Over time, HIV infection may lead to a serious disease called Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
How can I get HIV?
HIV passes from one person to another when body fluids infected with HIV (e.g. blood, semen, secretions from the vagina and breast milk) from one person get into the blood stream of another person. This is most likely to happen when a person:
- has vaginal or anal sex without using a condom;
- has a different sexually transmitted infection (STI) like syphilis, chlamydia or gonorrhea, which makes it easier to become infected with HIV;
- shares used needles, syringes or other injecting equipment;
- receives a blood transfusion in a country where the donated blood is not tested; or
- shares unsterilized used tattoo equipment.
In addition, a mother who has HIV infection can pass it to her baby during pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding.
You cannot become infected through casual contact (e.g. sharing food or drinks, insect bites, hugging or kissing as long as there are no open sores or bleeding in the mouth).
What are the symptoms of HIV?
Symptoms of HIV vary depending on the stage of infection. In the first few weeks after infection many people with HIV do not have any symptoms and do not know that they have HIV. Other people may have symptoms of an influenza-like illness. Symptoms may include fever, headache, muscle or joint soreness, swollen glands, sore throat or rash.
The only way to know that you have HIV is to have an HIV test.
What is an HIV test?
When someone becomes infected with HIV, their body makes proteins called antibodies. The HIV test looks for these antibodies. If antibodies are found during testing the result is positive for HIV infection.
Most people who have an HIV infection will develop detectable levels of antibodies 4 to 6 weeks after being infected with the virus. Almost all people who have an HIV infection will develop HIV antibodies that can be found on an HIV test after 3 months.
What are the types of HIV tests?
There are 2 types of HIV tests available. One of these is a standard laboratory test done using a blood sample taken from your arm. The result is available in 1 to 2 weeks.
The second type of HIV test is a called a point-of-care test using a drop of blood taken from your finger. The result is available at the time of testing. When a point-of-care test result indicates that HIV antibodies may be present, a standard laboratory test is required to confirm HIV infection.
Why test for HIV?
Having an HIV test and knowing your test result will help you to make decisions about your health.
It is your choice to have an HIV test. Talk to your health care provider before having the test if you have any concerns or questions about the HIV test or your HIV test result.
What if my HIV test is negative?
If your standard laboratory or point-of-care HIV blood test is negative and it has been more than 3 months since you may have been exposed to HIV, then it means that you likely do not have HIV. If it has been less than 3 months since you may have been exposed you may still have HIV, but it is too early for the test to detect the antibodies. You will need to have a second test after the 3 months have passed to be sure.
What if my HIV test is positive?
If your HIV test is positive it means that you have an HIV infection. Your health care provider will talk with you about the supports and treatments available. Although HIV is a life-long infection and there is no cure, there are medications available to help people with HIV.
You can still live a healthy and productive life if you have an HIV infection; however, getting early and ongoing health care is important.
Who has access to HIV test results?
To increase confidentiality, at the time of having an HIV test you may choose to use your initials and birth date as your identifying information.
Laboratory test results are kept in the provincial laboratory database. Your HIV test results may also be stored in your electronic health record within your health authority. Health care providers who are providing you with care will be able to see portions of your health care record. How much a health care provider can see of your record depends on their role; health care providers who are not providing you with care will not be able to access your record.
In B.C., positive HIV test results are shared with public health, in a confidential manner, to ensure that you and your partners are offered support and follow-up.
Should my partners be tested for HIV?
If you have an HIV infection and are sexually active or inject drugs it is important to tell your sexual partner(s) and anyone who might have shared your drug-using equipment. This will enable them to make decisions about their health and getting tested.
How can I prevent HIV infection?
You can prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections by doing the following:
- always use condoms for any vaginal, anal, and oral sex;
- talk with your sex partner(s) about getting tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections;
- use new needles and other drug-injecting equipment every time you inject;
- use only properly sterilized equipment for tattooing; and
- if you are sharing sex toys, use a new condom for each person.
If you believe that you have been exposed to HIV within the past 72 hours, you should go to your local emergency room for advice about whether to take medications to prevent developing HIV infection.
How can I reduce my chance of getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI)?
Practice safe sex by using a condom
When used as directed, male and female condoms help prevent the spread of many STIs, including HIV, during vaginal, anal and oral sex. Condoms are less effective at protecting against STIs transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, such as herpes simplex, genital warts (human papillomavirus or HPV), and syphilis.
Important things to remember when using condoms:
- Check the condom package for damage and to ensure the expiry date has not passed.
- Carefully open the package so that the condom does not tear.
- Keep condoms away from sharp objects such as rings, studs, or piercings.
- Store condoms at room temperature.
- A new condom should be used every time you have sex.
- Use only water-based lubricants with male latex condoms. Oil-based lubricants, such as petroleum jelly, lotion, or baby oil can weaken and destroy latex.
- Avoid using spermicides containing nonoxynol-9 (N-9). It irritates sexual tissue and may increase the chance of getting an STI.
Some STIs, such as hepatitis A, B and human papillomavirus (HPV) can be prevented with vaccines. Talk to your health care provider about how to get these vaccinations.
Know your sexual health status
If you have recently changed sexual partners, or have multiple sex partners, getting regularly tested for STIs will tell you if you have an infection. Finding and treating an STI, (including HIV) reduces the chances of passing the infection on to your partner.
The more partners you have, the more likely you are to be exposed to a sexually transmitted infection.
Talk about prevention
Talk to your partner about STIs and how you would like to prevent them before having sex. If you are having trouble discussing safer sex with your partner, talk about it with your health care provider or a counselor.
For tips on how to talk to your partner, visit the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) SmartSexResource at http://smartsexresource.com/sex-talk/talk-about-it.
If you have a sexually transmitted infection and are sexually active, it is important to tell your sexual partners. This will enable them to make decisions about their health and getting tested.
For More Information
For more information on how you can reduce your chance of getting an STI, see HealthLinkBC File #08o Preventing Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).