HIV – All about testing

updated 2 weeks ago in HIV Testing

Testing for HIV regularly is an important part of looking after your sexual health. The sooner HIV is detected, the sooner you can start HIV treatment and stay healthy.

When you test for HIV, ask about testing for other STIs as well. All good sexual health tests involve taking a little bit of blood and urine as well as a few swabs from your mouth, arse, vagina or front hole, and sometimes your penis. Talk with your doctor about what tests are best for you.

If you are a man who has sex with other men, test for HIV and other STIs every three months.

What is the HIV window period and why is it important?

A ‘window period’ is the amount of time between coming in to contact with HIV and it showing up in a test.

HIV is highly infectious during this window period, even if you don’t have symptoms.

When you test for HIV, remember:

  • HIV tests have a window period of up to six weeks for laboratory tests and three months for other tests. This means that any exposure to HIV within this period may not show up on test results. This is why regular HIV testing is important.
  • You can have confidence in a negative HIV test result, as long as you haven’t had any other exposure to HIV within the window period.

How do I get tested for HIV?

Laboratory test

In Australia, you can test for HIV with your doctor or at a sexual health service. Records of your test and results are confidential and private. A blood sample is taken and sent to a laboratory for HIV testing.

Laboratory test results usually take about one week to come back. If the test result is positive for HIV, another test will be done to confirm this. A negative test result from a laboratory test means you do not have HIV.

Remember that HIV tests may not detect recent HIV acquired during the window period. Test every three months to be sure of your HIV status.

Rapid HIV test

Rapid HIV testing is available across Australia, mostly in capital cities. A rapid HIV test offers results in less than 20 minutes.

The window period for a rapid HIV test is three months. This means any exposure to HIV within this period may not show up on test results.

Rapid HIV tests are a type of screening test. This means they can’t be used to confirm an HIV diagnosis. A reactive result does not necessarily mean you have HIV. If the test reacts, a blood sample will be sent for laboratory testing to confirm the results.

To conduct the test, a small amount of blood is drawn, usually with a finger prick.

There are three possible results:

  • Non-reactive – This means HIV was not detected. Note that if you have acquired HIV within the window period you could still receive a non-reactive result.
  • Reactive – This means that HIV may have been detected. This result does not guarantee an HIV diagnosis. This must be confirmed with a laboratory test for HIV.
  • Invalid – This result occurs if the test malfunctions. In this rare situation, the test must be done again.

For more on rapid HIV testing, see A quick prick does the trick – all about rapid HIV testing.

HIV self-test (HST)

An HIV self-test (HST) is a finger-prick blood test that you can do yourself at home. It produces results within 15 minutes and doesn’t need to be sent to a laboratory.

The window period for an HIV self-test is three months. This means any exposure to HIV within this period may not show up on test results.

HST kits are simple to use and come with clear instructions. Each test is single-use and involves collecting a small amount of blood from a finger prick.

Like rapid HIV testing, HST is a screening test. Any reactive result will need to be confirmed with a laboratory test for HIV. The HST has three possible results:

  • Non-reactive – This means HIV was not detected. Note that if you have acquired HIV within the window period you could still receive a non-reactive result.
  • Reactive – This means that HIV may have been detected. This result does not guarantee an HIV diagnosis. This must be confirmed with a laboratory test for HIV.
  • Invalid – This result occurs if the test malfunctions. In this rare situation, the test must be done again.

Australia only has one HST approved for sale, which you can buy online from the Atomo website. The website also lists places you can buy a kit in person.

If you want to self-test, we encourage you to use the approved HST kit. This ensures the quality and accuracy of the test and provides Australia-specific directions to follow up on your results.

You can buy other HST devices for use in Australia. However, these are not approved by the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and may vary in quality and accuracy.

If you are considering self-testing for HIV, be prepared. Know ahead of time who you can contact for further care, support and testing services in case of a reactive result. Try to do the self-test during times when these support services are open and available for follow-up. Try to have a supportive friend or family member with you when you self-test.

For more on HIV self-testing, see HIV self testing kits now in Australia — discreet results in 15 minutes.

Dried blood spot (DBS) test

A dried blood spot (DBS) test is an accurate HIV test that residents of New South Wales can do at home. There is no need to go to a sexual health service or see a doctor to do a DBS test.

The window period for a dried blood spot HIV test is three months. This means that any exposure to HIV within this period may not show up on test results.

To do a DBS test, register online. Complete the online form with your contact details and a mailing address for the test. All your information, including your test results, is private and confidential.

After you receive the test, it involves collecting a few drops of blood from your finger on a card. Once it is dry, you send the card away for testing. Results take about one week to come back.

If the test comes back reactive, you will need to do a laboratory test to confirm your HIV status. As with other HIV tests, a DBS test may not detect HIV within the window period.