Common questions about HIV testing

The only way to know for sure whether you have HIV is to get tested. Knowing your status is important because it helps you make healthy decisions to prevent getting or transmitting HIV.

What is HIV?

HIV is the name of the virus that causes an infection that damages your immune system and weakens your ability to fight infection and disease. Left untreated, HIV can cause AIDS – the most advanced stage of HIV infection. This means that you can be infected with HIV (a virus) without having AIDS (an illness). Read more about HIV and AIDs.

Here are some frequently asked questions about HIV testing:

  1. Should I be tested for HIV?
  2. What are my options for HIV testing?
  3. Can I have sex while I'm waiting for my test results?
  4. What does a positive test result mean? 
  5. What does a negative test result mean?
  6. What is informed consent?
  7. How often should I get tested?

When should I be tested for HIV?

You can be exposed to HIV by having unprotected sex (without a condom) with an infected person, by sharing infected needles and other injecting equipment, or from a needlestick injury. It can also be passed on from a mother to her baby during pregnancy and delivery. 

If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, you should get a test. You can use the NZ AIDS Foundation's Been exposed tool to find out the likely risk of a specific event or encounter and advice for what to do next. 

What are my options for HIV testing?

There are 3 main options for HIV testing. 

  • Lab testing: This requires a standard blood test, where blood is drawn from your vein into a tube and sent to a laboratory (lab). You will have to wait a few days for results. 
  • Rapid test: A rapid test for HIV is offered by the NZAF. The rapid test involves a finger prick, where a drop of blood is placed into the testing device. The rapid HIV tests have over 99.2% accuracy and you will get your result in a few minutes. 
  • Home test: Home testing kits are available. For this test, you swab your gums to collect an oral fluid sample and use the materials in the kit to test your oral fluid sample. You will be able to get a result within 20 minutes.

HIV can be detected by some tests as early as 2 weeks after exposure, but it may take up to 3 months for it to show. Everyone responds differently to the virus.

Can I have sex while I'm waiting for my test results?

While waiting for your test results, it is best to practice safe sex by using condoms or avoiding sexual intercourse. Contact your doctor if you get symptoms such as tiredness, fever, sore throat, headache, rash and swollen glands.

What does a positive test result mean?

If you have a positive test result from a rapid test or a home test, you need a follow-up lab test for confirmation. Once your positive test has been confirmed, you will be offered treatment and counselling and support. Read more about HIV and AIDs.  

What does a negative test result mean?

If you have a test result that is negative, it should always be confirmed by a follow-up test around 12 weeks later.

This is because of a window period, when HIV may be present in your system but not detectable. During this period (usually 4–12 weeks), you can still be highly infectious. The window period varies from person to person and depends on the type of test used.

What is informed consent?

Informed consent means you have enough information to understand HIV testing, such as the options for testing, an understanding of how the tests are done, what the results mean and the impact of testing. This will help you make an informed decision about your health care. Read more about informed consent, and talk to your healthcare provider if you have any questions.

How often should I get tested?

How often you should get tested depends on who you have sex with and what type of sex you have. Use the NZAF Testing frequency calculator for advice on how often you should be tested. If you are at higher risk of HIV, ask your healthcare provider whether preventative medicine is right for you. Read more about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). 

Learn more

All about testing Aids Foundation, NZ
Book a free test Ending HIV, NZ
Other places for arranging a test are your GP and your local sexual health clinic 
Rapid HIV and syphilis testing Body Positive, NZ   
HIV testing Centres for Disease Control, US

Reviewed by

Dr Sharon Leitch is a general practitioner and clinical research training fellow in the Department of General Practice and Rural Health at the University of Otago. Her area of research is patient safety in primary care and safe medicine use.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Sharon Leitch, GP and Clinical Research Training Fellow, University of Otago Last reviewed: 25 Feb 2021