Do I really have to get an HIV test every 6 months? Just going once scared me!

Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 budding from cultured lymphocyte. Photo Courtesy of the Public Health Image Library; C. Goldsmith

Question: Do I really have to get an HIV test every 6 months? Just going once scared me!

I recently got an e-mail from someone asking me why they had to get tested for HIV every six months. They were concerned, because even going in for a single test filled them with fear. I was confused, since HIV testing every 6 months isn't a standard recommendation. Then I realized that they had misunderstood two instructions that had been given to one of their friends.

Answer: The person who had written to me was incredibly stressed out about the idea that she might have to go for an HIV test every 6 months for the rest of her life. However, she was confused. Her recently tested friend had been told:

  1. To get an HIV test again in 6 months
  2. That regular testing would be a good idea

These recommendations had been given because the friend in question was generally at high risk of HIV infection due to her lifestyle choices. They were also given because she had a known exposure to the HIV virus. Let me explain.

Get Tested in 6 Months

The reason this reader's friend had been told to come back and get tested again in 6 months is that it can take some time before an HIV test can be trusted to accurately pick up an infection. How much time depends on the type of HIV test chosen and numerous other variables. However, in general most people who have been infected with HIV will test positive by the time six months has passed from their exposure to the HIV virus.

Regular Testing Is a Good Idea

Although I agree that regular testing is a good idea for everyone, the definition of "regular" has some flexibility depending on your level of risk. If you are serially monogamous and/or regularly have unprotected sex with multiple partners, you should probably be getting tested at least once a year.

You might even want to get tested more often. Even if the sex you have is safe, yearly testing isn't a bad idea if you have with multiple partners. On the other hand, if you're in a long-term monogamous relationship with no potential workplace or other (IV drug, etc.) exposures, less frequent is fine. You can afford to go a bit longer between tests. The trick is being honest with yourself about your risk profile. There are an awful lot of people who don't think they're at risk of HIV when they really are.

I can't deny that HIV testing is scary. That's true even if you know your risk is low. The trick is to remember that you aren't really scared of  the HIV test. You're scared of learning you have HIV or AIDS. Not getting tested won't protect you from an HIV infection. It only protects you from knowing that you're infected. In turn, that protects you from getting treatment in a timely manner.

With the HIV virus, knowing may not be half the battle. It's still a heck of a lot better than living in ignorance.

Early treatment can prevent HIV from having long-term effects on your body. It can keep you healthier. It can even prevent HIV from doing much damage at all. It also makes it easier for you to protect the health of your partners. Hopefully knowing that you can do something about a positive test makes HIV testing less scary. 

Did You Know: Some doctors offer rapid HIV tests. Waiting for 20 minutes for a result is a lot less scary than waiting for up to two weeks!

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