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When to test for HIV

If you’re having sex, testing regularly for HIV is a great way to protect your health and the health of your partner. When to test is up to you, but you should:

  • see a healthcare professional right away if you think you might have been exposed to HIV. They can test you for HIV and talk you through what’s next
  • not wait for symptoms to appear if you're worried you might have HIV – not everyone gets them!
  • remember that getting tested for HIV is quick, easy, painless, confidential, and almost always free.

How often should I test for HIV?

Test for HIV at least once a year if you’re having sex, even if you always use protection.

It’s a good idea to test more regularly than this if you have sex with a new partner. If you tested negative before but think you may have been exposed to HIV more recently, take another test.

HIV testing should be a regular part of everyone’s health routine. If you’re having sex, or sharing needles to inject drugs, it’s a great way to protect your health and your partner’s health.

Getting tested for HIV is quick, easy, painless, confidential, and almost always free. You can even do a self-test at home. Remember that testing regularly for HIV is the only way to know your status, meaning you can get treatment if you need it. 

Why you should test for HIV

I haven’t got any signs or symptoms of HIV. Should I still test?

Yes. The signs or symptoms of HIV can vary from person-to-person, and some people may not have any symptoms at all. It is important to test whether you have symptoms or not.

When should I test if I think I have been exposed to HIV?

If you think you might have been exposed to HIV, speak to a healthcare professional immediately. They will talk to you about your situation and help you decide what to do next. The most important thing is to take a test.

It’s important to speak to a healthcare professional immediately because you could get PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) if it is within 72 hours of when you think you were exposed to HIV. This is emergency HIV treatment that can prevent HIV in people who were recently exposed to HIV.

Personal story: Lucas

Personal story: Lucas

If you’re worried, get tested

What should I do if I’ve had unprotected sex?

If you’ve had sex without a condom or other protection from HIV don’t panic – it happens. The best thing to do is to talk to a healthcare worker as soon as possible. They'll be able to give you advice on testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, as well as emergency contraception

How many HIV tests do I need to confirm my status?

In some countries you will need two tests to confirm your HIV status. In other countries you will need three. This is to make sure that any false results are caught and confirmed with another test.

Remember that if you do test positive for HIV you will be able to start treatment straight away. Treatment is now so effective that people with HIV can live a long and healthy life like anybody else.

When should I test for HIV if I’m pregnant or planning to get pregnant?

HIV can be passed onto your baby during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding. Test regularly if you or your partner is pregnant, breastfeeding or planning to get pregnant. The earlier you test during pregnancy the better. You'll usually be tested in your first appointment, ideally before your tenth week. These tests should be repeated every three months or at least once again in your third trimester.

If you test positive for HIV before or during pregnancy, you can take HIV treatment and have a healthy baby.

HIV testing during pregnancy
Personal story: Akudzwe

Personal story: Akudzwe

'This baby saved my life, and I am so grateful for that'

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HIV testing quiz

Let's talk about HIV testing!

Here are a few questions to help kick-off discussions on the issues you need to talk about! You can share them on social, on WhatsApp or just get talking.

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Looking for more detailed information?

How long do I need to wait after exposure to HIV before I can test?

It takes a bit of time for HIV to show up in an HIV test – this is called the window period. The length of the window period will depend on the type of test you take. For some tests it is up to three months and for other tests it is one month.

When can HIV be detected by a test?

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The picture above shows the window periods for different HIV tests. Some tests (fourth generation tests) can give an accurate result within four weeks. Others can take three months to be accurate (third generation tests, rapid tests and self-testing kits).

Healthcare workers will be able to explain how long the window period is for the test they offer. If you test before the window period is over, you will need to test again to get an accurate test result after the window period.

People who take pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) or post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) may have a longer window period. This is because of a delay in their body’s response to HIV.

Why is more than one HIV test needed to diagnose someone?

False HIV test results can happen, although they are rare. This is why more than one test is needed to diagnose HIV. 

To avoid situations where people are misdiagnosed with HIV, the World Health Organization (WHO) is encouraging countries with HIV prevalence below 5% to increase the number of tests used to confirm an HIV diagnosis from two to three.

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Next: What's involved in testing for HIV

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  • Last updated: 23 April 2024
  • Last full review: 01 December 2023
  • Next full review: 01 December 2026
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