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Understanding Your Test Results

What Does A Negative HIV Test Result Mean?

A negative result may not always be accurate. It depends on when you might have been exposed to HIV and when you took the test.

That’s because of the window period—the period of time after you may have been exposed to HIV, but before a test can detect it. The window period depends on the type of HIV test that you take. For antibody tests, if you get a negative result within 3 months of your most recent possible exposure, you need to get tested again at the 3-month mark. For combination antibody/antigen tests or RNA tests, that timeframe may be shorter.

Ask your healthcare provider if and when you need to be retested with a negative test result. And meanwhile, practice abstinence or mutual monogamy with a trusted partner, use condoms every time you have sex (and for every sex act—anal, oral, or vaginal) and don’t share needles and other drug equipment (works).

And remember— a negative result is only good for past exposure. If you get a negative test result, but continue to engage in high-risk behaviors, you are still at risk for HIV infection. For information on risk behaviors, please see our page, Lower Your Sexual Risk of HIV.

What Does A Positive HIV Test Result Mean?

If your initial HIV test result is positive, follow-up testing is performed. HIV tests are generally very accurate, but follow-up testing allows you and your health care provider to be sure the diagnosis is right.

If you had a rapid screening test, the testing site will arrange a follow-up test to make sure the screening test result was correct. If your blood was tested in a lab, the lab will conduct a follow-up test on the same sample. If the confirmatory test is also positive, you will be diagnosed as “HIV-positive.”

At this point, the person giving you your test results will discuss what having HIV means for you and your health. You will be informed about how the virus can affect you and how to protect others from becoming infected. You will also be informed about resources and treatments available to you. Finally, you will be referred to a medical professional for follow-up treatment.

Next Steps if you are HIV-positive

The sooner you take steps to protect your health, the better. Early treatment with antiretroviral drugs and a healthy lifestyle can help you stay well. Prompt medical care prevents the onset of AIDS and some life-threatening conditions.

Here are some important steps you can take right away to protect your health:

  • See a licensed health care provider, even if you don’t feel sick. Your local health department can help you find a health care provider who has experience treating HIV. There are medicines to treat HIV infection and help you stay healthy. It’s never too early to start treatment. Current guidelines recommend treatment with antiretroviral therapy (ART) for all people with HIV, including those with early infection.
  • Get screened for other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). STIs can cause serious health problems, even when they don’t cause symptoms. Using a condom during all sexual contact (anal, vaginal, or oral) can help prevent many STIs.
  • Have a TB (tuberculosis) test. You may be infected with TB and not know it. Undetected TB can cause serious illness, but it can be successfully treated if caught early.
  • Get help if you smoke cigarettes, drink too much alcohol, or use illegal drugs (such as methamphetamine), which can weaken your immune system. Find substance abuse treatment facilities near you.

To avoid giving HIV to anyone else,

  • Tell your partner or partners about your HIV status before you have any type of sexual contact with them (anal, vaginal, or oral).
  • Use latex condoms and/or dental dams with every sexual contact. If either partner is allergic to latex, plastic (polyurethane) condoms for either the male or female can be used.
  • Don’t share needles, syringes, or other drug paraphernalia with anyone.
  • Stay on ART to keep your virus under control and greatly reduce your ability to spread HIV to others.
  • If your steady partner is HIV-negative, discuss whether he or she should consider pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)—medications to prevent  HIV.

Last revised: 06/05/2015