Everything You Need to Know About Getting an HIV Test

Lab technician putting blood sample on a slide for HIV testing
Lab technician putting blood sample on a slide for HIV testing. Martin Harvey / Getty Images

The process of HIV testing can be extremely confusing since there's so much that you need to know. When can, and should, you get tested? How do HIV tests work? Is there a difference between anonymous and confidential HIV testing? Where can you find a free HIV test in your area? The resources below should get you started on your journey:


The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the virus that causes AIDS. HIV/AIDS is not a condition that's devastating in itself. The virus, in fact, is directly responsible for few to no symptoms in the people it affects. Instead, HIV, particularly if left untreated, will eventually destroy a person's immune system. This leaves an infected individual susceptible to a variety of serious illnesses that most other people are easily able to fight off.​

Who Needs to Get Tested for HIV?

Everyone is at risk of acquiring HIV. It affects people young and old, gay and straight, Black and white, rich and poor. Although this has long been recognized, until recently universal HIV testing was not a part of U.S. testing policy. In 2006, however, everything changed. The CDC now recommends that everyone be tested as part of their routine health care, instead of focusing on people previously considered high risk.​

How Testing Works

HIV testing can be difficult for people to understand. Unlike tests for many diseases that look directly for the organisms that cause the condition, many HIV tests try to find the body's response to the virus rather than the virus itself. In recent years, it has become possible to do an HIV test that looks for the virus directly, but these tests may be hard to find. Fortunately, HIV testing is constantly improving. No longer do all tests require a blood sample; instead, some can now be done with a swab from your mouth. Furthermore, while some tests still require a multi-week wait for results, other tests give a preliminary answer about your infection status in less than an hour.

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