As an advocate and educator in the HIV/AIDS community, I hear one question often from people who are not HIV positive: “Should I get tested?” The short and simple answer is always YES!
If there is any question or doubt about your health, your sexual activity, or your sexual history, I always suggest getting tested. These days the initial testing is an easier, more accessible process than in the past. I emphatically feel that it is the duty of anyone who is sexually active to know his or her status. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), of the over one million people living with HIV in the United States, approximately 18% have not been tested and are not aware of their status.
An important thing to remember is that anyone who is sexually active, whether gay, straight, or bisexual, and especially if they are engaging with multiple partners, are at risk for contracting HIV and should get tested. Even people who are married or in monogamous relationships should get tested, as should their partners. In any committed relationships, there can be slip-ups. It is important for both partners to be safe and informed.
When you get tested is just as important as why you get tested. When HIV enters the body it interacts with the CD4 cells. In response, the immune system produces antibodies to fight off the infection. The test for HIV looks for the presence of these antibodies, which are a confirmation that HIV is present in the body.
These antibodies generally become detectable within the first three months of exposure to HIV, but can sometimes take as much as six months to develop. A general rule of thumb is to test three months after a suspected exposure, and have a follow-up test at six to nine months.
Most initial testing these days is done with a rapid oral test, which takes about twenty minutes, is pain free, and requires no needles. Most testing sites also offer counseling about HIV and AIDS, and the counselors are very knowledgeable as well as sympathetic. In most cases, HIV tests are confidential, but it is good to know that many centers also offer completely anonymous testing, which means you do not have to give your name or personal information.
As kind as your doctor or the people at the testing center may be, it is very natural to be anxious and stressed when it comes time to test. This is a time when you may run up against fears of being judged or discriminated against, and you may feel the incredible pressure of wondering how this disease may impact your life. These are all very natural fears. By overcoming them and getting tested you will have the knowledge to address whatever the outcome may be.
If you feel comfortable, ask a friend to go to the test site with you for support. You may even plan on getting tested together as a commitment to each other’s health and well-being. Go to the gym and work out or take a hike on the day you are going to get tested to assist in relieving stress. Take some time to breathe or meditate. Don’t let the anxiety of getting tested stop you from actually walking in the door at your doctor’s office or clinic and getting tested. Early detection is one of the greatest means of effective treatment for HIV. Also, having the knowledge of your status will help you prevent transmission to other sexual partners, resisting the spread of HIV.
And even a negative HIV test can be a wake-up call to examine your sexual activities and lifestyle, as well as the potential risks that may have exposed you to the disease in the first place.
I believe each of us has the responsibility to have regular HIV tests especially when engaging in potentially risky behavior, not just for our physical health but also for our emotional and mental well-being.
To find a free or low-cost HIV testing site near you, go to hivtest.cdc.gov/
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