HIV and HIV Tests

HealthLinkBC File Number: 
08m
Sexually Transmitted Infections Series
Last Updated: 
September 2014

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.

If untreated, HIV infection will 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 containing 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 doing any of the following with a person who has HIV:

  • having vaginal or anal sex without using a condom;
  • having sex when either of you has a different sexually transmitted infection (STI) like syphilis, chlamydia or gonorrhea (these infections make it easier to become infected with HIV);
  • sharing needles, syringes or other injecting equipment;
  • receiving a blood transfusion (this only happens in countries where the donated blood is not tested for HIV); or
  • sharing unsterilized body art equipment like tattoo equipment.

A person has the most HIV in their body when they first contract the virus, which increases the possibility of transmitting it to others.

A mother who has HIV infection can pass it to her baby during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding. This risk can be greatly reduced by use of antiretroviral medications. These medications decrease the amount of HIV in the body, which reduces the chance of passing it on.

You cannot become infected with HIV through casual contact such as sharing food or drinks, insect bites, hugging or kissing.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

Symptoms of HIV vary depending on the stage of infection. In the first few weeks after infection some people have symptoms of a flu-like illness. This includes 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?

If you become infected with HIV, your body will make proteins called antibodies. The HIV test can detect these antibodies. When antibodies are detected, the HIV test result is positive, indicating 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.

British Columbia HIV testing guidelines recommend that everyone have an HIV test at least every 5 years. They recommend more frequent testing for people who:

  • belong to populations that have a greater chance of having HIV;
  • are pregnant;
  • experience a change in their health that suggests HIV; and
  • request a test.

It is your choice to have an HIV test. Talk to your health care provider 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?

Although HIV is a life-long infection, you can still live a healthy and productive life. However, getting early and ongoing health care is important. Talk to your health care provider about supports, your health care, and about antiretroviral medications.

Who has access to HIV test results?

In B.C., positive HIV test results are shared with public health, in a confidential manner, to ensure that you and your partner(s) are offered support and follow-up. In the event of a positive result, if you do not wish your full name to be reported to public health, you may request that your first name, initials and birth date be used as your identifying information when your results are reported.

Some clinics allow you to test using a numbered code and give no contact information. This is called anonymous testing, and is currently being offered at a limited number of sites in B.C.

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. You can place disclosure directives on your electronic health records that enable you to choose who will have access to them. For more information about disclosure directives, visit www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/topic.page?id=1DDC2DB0B8A74918844573A7ECBCAFA0.

Should my partner(s) be tested for HIV?

If you have an HIV infection and are sexually active or you use injection 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 or other body art; 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.

Get vaccinated

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.

Informing Partners

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).

For more information on British Columbia’s HIV testing guidelines, see www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/DownloadAsset?assetId=B4093BA93C2B40D5971127F3E950BE57&filename=hiv-testing-guidelines-bc.pdf

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