The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a sexually transmitted infection that attacks and damages your body’s immune system and cells. If left untreated, it may lead to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), a term used to describe the serious infections that arise from a severely damaged immune system.
HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids such as blood, semen and vaginal fluid, often during unprotected vaginal, anal, and oral sex or by sharing needles with HIV-infected people.
Condoms are highly effective for preventing HIV transmission. But let’s face it, we all slip up sometimes and fail to use one, or maybe it breaks. Many people also don’t realise the importance of condoms during oral sex (read our blog article on how to have safe oral sex to brush up on your knowledge).
While there is no cure for HIV at present, the good news is there are effective treatments that enable people to still live a long and healthy life without ever developing AIDS - we’ve got a great blog article on the advancements of HIV and AIDs over the years, go check it out!
If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, you’ll want to make an appointment with your sexual health provider as soon as possible to take an HIV test. Evidence suggests that early treatment of HIV improves outcomes for infected people and significantly reduces the risk of developing AIDS.
In this blog article, we will arm you with all the knowledge you need about HIV testing, including the types of tests available and when to take them.
What Types of HIV Testing Are There?
There are three main things a HIV test will look for to identify infection.
Antibody Test: When the body is exposed to HIV, the immune system produces antibodies that bind to the virus and signal immune cells to destroy it. Antibody tests look for HIV antibodies in your blood, namely IgG and IgM.
Antigen Test: Antigens are foreign molecules which are part of HIV, such as a molecule called p24. These molecules trigger an immune response and can often be detected sooner than antibodies.
Nucleic Acid Test (NAT): These blood tests look for genetic material contained within the virus itself, and can usually detect HIV infection quicker. Generally, this type of test is only offered to people who have had a high-risk exposure recently or have symptoms of HIV infection but have tested negative with other tests.
Tests in the UK are usually either 3rd generation (antibody only) or 4th generation (antibody and antigen) tests. According to the national guidelines from BASHH/BHIVA, antigen/antibody tests (4th generation tests) should be the first choice for HIV testing. At Yoxly, you can be reassured that our lab uses 4th generation testing.
How Soon is My Result Accurate?
It’s important to get tested out with the window period for any HIV test; otherwise, you risk inaccurate results.
4th Generation (Antigen/Antibody) Tests: These are testing for both molecules attached to HIV and your own immune response. When a healthcare professional takes your blood directly from a vein, these tests will detect most infections 45 days after exposure; however, the window period for a conclusive negative result is 90 days after exposure. For self-testing using fingerprick sampling (these are the kind of tests Yoxly uses), the window period is defined as 90 days.
3rd Generation (Antibody) Tests: These are testing for the antibodies produced by your body in response to HIV infection. It takes time for your body to produce enough antibodies to show up on a test; therefore, the window period for 3rd generation tests is 60–90 days.
NATs: These can detect HIV infection sooner than other tests, usually between 10-33 days post-exposure.
Almost everyone with an HIV infection will show up positive on all tests 90 days after exposure. If you initially test negative before this time has passed, it is recommended to repeat your test to be sure you have not contracted HIV.
How Often Should I Get Tested?
If you often have unprotected sex, it is good practice to test yearly for HIV and other STIs, even if you don’t think you are infected. If you have unprotected sex with multiple sexual partners, you might want to get tested more frequently.
Groups at higher risk of HIV infection, including men who have sex with men (MSM), black African men and women, and those engaging in transactional sex, should get tested routinely every three months if having unprotected sex with new or casual partners.
At Yoxly, we use 4th generation testing, which is the most accurate type of testing, and is likely to detect most infections after 45 days. However, for a conclusive result, we recommend repeating your HIV test 90 days after exposure.
Yoxly’s home STI testing kits make the process of getting tested for HIV more convenient and allow you to do it in the privacy of your own home.
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Emergency HIV Treatment
If you think you might have HIV, you should not need to wait for a diagnosis before seeking help. Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) medicine taken within 72 hours of coming into contact with the virus can help prevent infection from happening altogether!
Usually, this treatment is recommended for people who have come into contact with the virus through a HIV-positive sexual partner or have had another high-risk encounter. You can get PEP from sexual health clinics or A&E departments. See our blog article about where to get PEP!
HIV is a sexually transmitted infection that can cause damage to the immune system if left untreated. However, the wonders of modern medicine now mean HIV-positive people can live long and healthy lives if the infection is caught early.
The three main types of HIV testing are antigen/antibody (4th generation) tests, antibody tests (3rd generation) tests and NATs. According to guidelines from BASHH/BHIVA, antigen/antibody (4th generation) tests should be the first port of call, as these detect most infections at 45 days after exposure, and are conclusive 90 days after exposure.
It is recommended to get tested yearly if you have frequent unprotected sex, or every three months if you are at higher risk. If you have been exposed to HIV, don’t wait around, you can get emergency treatment to help reduce the risk of infection - this can make all the difference!
Try an at-home STI testing kit from Yoxly and stay on top of your sexual health.