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Frequently asked questions and answers about getting tested for HIV

If you think you have put yourself at risk of getting HIV and want to know more about how to get tested, here are some commonly asked questions.

I’m worried I have been exposed to HIV within the past 72 hours. What should I do?

You need to visit a GUM clinic or Emergency Department (ED) as soon as possible, where you may be able to access a course of Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) (anti-HIV medication).

PEP is medication that can help prevent people from developing HIV if they've been exposed to it.

How do I get tested for HIV?

The most common form of HIV test is a blood test. A small amount of blood is taken from you and tested in a laboratory.

When you get tested at a GUM clinic or by your doctor, your results will be explained to you. You will also be offered medical care and support.

What is the ‘window period’?

The ‘window period’ is the time between HIV infection occurring and when a test can correctly give a positive result. If an HIV test is performed during this ‘window period’, a person who has recently become infected with HIV may receive a ‘false negative’ test result.

The ‘window period’ can vary and can last up to three months. Until you have been tested after the recommended time has passed, it’s important to avoid any activities that can transmit HIV between people such as:

Staff at a GUM clinic will explain all aspects of HIV testing.

There are ways you can help protect your sexual health. By reducing the risks, you can protect yourself and others, now and in the future.

Find out more about how to protect your sexual health

What is HIV self-testing?

Self-testing is when you perform an HIV test on yourself in private and get an instant result.

A change in Northern Ireland legislation means that from early 2016, it will be legal to sell self-testing kits for HIV.

Currently, you can buy an HIV self-testing kit online.

HIV self-testing will not replace existing testing services. Instead, it provides an additional option for people who are uncomfortable or unable to take an HIV test at a GUM clinic.

You should give careful consideration to the possible results before carrying out a self-test for HIV.

If you have any concerns about self-testing, remember you can get advice and a free HIV test at a GUM clinic or from your GP.

What should I do if my self-test shows a positive result?

A reactive or positive self-test result does not mean you definitely have HIV. A ‘false positive’ result can occur when an HIV test incorrectly identifies a non-HIV-antibody as an HIV antibody.

All positive self-test results need to be confirmed by an HIV test performed by a health professional. This can be done at:

  • a GUM clinic – you will be seen as a priority in a GUM clinic if you feel able to disclose a positive self-test result to the person booking your appointment;
  • your GP surgery.  

A small blood sample will be taken and sent to a laboratory for HIV testing. If the result is positive, you will be referred to an HIV specialist clinic. Everyone living with HIV in the UK is offered free treatment, care and support.

The earlier the diagnosis and treatment, the more successful the treatment will be. With early diagnosis and treatment, you can live a healthy life and a normal lifespan is now possible. 

You may wish to seek advice and support following a self-test. Options include:

Find out where to find more help and support.

What should I do if my self-test shows a negative result?

If you followed the instructions for the self-test very carefully, a negative result probably means you don’t have HIV. If someone is infected with HIV, it can take up to three months for a self-test to detect it (see ‘window period’ section). During this time, you may be infectious. If you self-test too soon, you should test again after three months or go to a GUM or sexual health clinic for another test to make sure you are not infected. The test carried out at a GUM clinic has a shorter ‘window period’ and may help reduce the wait and worry.

A negative test this time does not mean you will not be infected in the future. You should get tested regularly if you engage in any activities that could put you at risk of HIV or other STIs. It is recommended that you go to a GUM clinic to get tested for all STIs, and for advice on how to protect your sexual health.

If you have any concerns, contact your GP or GUM clinic for advice,information and support.

How do I know I am buying a reliable self-test kit for HIV?

It’s important to check that any HIV self-test kit you buy carries the European ‘CE’ quality mark.

Currently only the BioSURE HIV Self Test has this CE mark.

Other approved HIV self-test kits may become available to buy in the future.

Illegal self-testing kits can be bought online, often from abroad. These kits do not meet UK standards and regulations, so they may not be safe or provide reliable results.

Can I use an HIV self-test kit to test for other sexually transmitted infections?

No. It’s important to understand that HIV self-test kits only test for HIV infection. Other STIs such as syphilis, gonorrhoea, herpes and chlamydia cannot be identified using an HIV self-test kit.

If you have engaged in high-risk behaviour, you are at risk of other STIs. It is recommended that you go to a GUM clinic to get tested for all STIs, and for advice on how to reduce high-risk behaviours.

How often should I get an HIV test?

People can live with HIV for years before experiencing any symptoms. The only way to be sure is to have an HIV test.

You should get tested regularly if you are at risk of getting HIV.

HIV diagnoses have been increasing among men who have sex with men (MSM) in Northern Ireland.8

If you are a man who has sex with men, there are ways to protect your sexual health, including getting tested regularly – at least once a year, or once every three months if you change sexual partners.

Sexual health information for men who have sex with men

You should also get tested for other STIs at a GUM clinic if you have put yourself at risk.

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