An estimated 1.2 million people in the United States are living with HIV. But research shows that many of them – around 13% – don’t know it. According to the CDC, about 40% of new HIV infections are transmitted by people who do not know they have the virus.
There are many reasons that may prevent people from getting an HIV test. Fear of the disease, stigma, and being discriminated against or negatively judged if they test positive for HIV are some of the barriers.
But getting tested is the first step in knowing your status. This is important information to help you take care of your health and prevent the viral infection that causes AIDS.
For Kelly Gluckman of Seattle, HIV was the last thing on her mind when she stopped using condoms with her partner without getting tested for HIV first.
“I knew that wasn’t the smartest decision,” says Gluckman, who is now in her 30s.
She was 23 at the time, and even though she knew about HIV testing through extensive sex education in school, she says as a “white, straight woman”, she had never put herself at risk for HIV. I didn’t see But after about 6 months of unprotected sex, Gluckman and her partner decided to get tested for HIV as a precaution.
“We both tested positive on October 25, 2010,” Gluckman says. “We were both very devastated.”
“The immediate thought was, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die.’ I faced mortality, because ‘HIV turns into AIDS and then you die.’ It was just what I was taught from what I saw in the media, and what I learned in school,” Gluckman says.
Later, Gluckman says that denial played a role in her and her partner’s hesitation to get tested for HIV.
“We’d talk about going and getting tested and then we wouldn’t do it,” she says.
Many people still hold a “scary view” of HIV, says David Pantalone, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He believes it may have something to do with old images and narratives about HIV from the ’80s.
“I think there is no revised public concept of what it is like to have HIV,” Pantalone says. “This is because what it looks like to have HIV now is basically the same as what it looks like not to have HIV. The life expectancy data between HIV-positive people and HIV-negative people is not really that different.”
While HIV doesn’t have a cure, treatment, antiretroviral therapy (ART), is highly effective. This lowers the amount of HIV virus in your body, or your viral load. If you take the medicine as prescribed by your doctor, the viral load may be too low to be detected by an HIV test. When this happens, there is little or no chance of the infection developing symptoms or spreading it to others. Usually, you can get HIV under control with drugs in just 6 months.
Gluckman saw positive results almost immediately after she started taking her medication.
“My viral load became undetectable within 2 months,” Gluckman says, adding that she had no side effects.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to live, I can be healthy with this virus, with this thing.’
The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 should get tested for HIV at least once in their lives. Usually, you can do this during your annual health checkup. If you haven’t been tested, ask your doctor about it.
If you’re at high risk, you need to get tested more often: every 3 or 6 months to be sure. But Pantalone says the lack of testing is a result of people misunderstanding that high risk for disease “fits within an identity” when it is a virus spread through normal human behavior, such as having sex.
“If you’ve had sex with anyone without a condom, you need an HIV test. Even though it’s low-risk, you should still do it periodically, because you never know,” Pantalone says.
According to the CDC, you are at higher risk of HIV if you can answer “yes” to any of the following questions:
- Are you a man who has had sex with another man?
- Have you had sex – anal or vaginal – with someone who has HIV?
- Have you had more than one sexual partner since your last HIV test?
- Have you shared needles, shared injected drugs, or other drug injection equipment with others?
- Have you had sex in exchange for drugs or money?
- Have you been diagnosed with or treated for other sexually transmitted diseases?
- Have you been diagnosed or treated for hepatitis or tuberculosis (TB)?
- Have you had sex with someone whose sexual history you do not know?
If any of these apply to you, you may benefit from annual HIV testing, even if your previous test was negative.
If you’re pregnant, ask your doctor for an HIV test. If you have HIV when you are pregnant, tell your doctor as soon as possible. Your doctor can give you the right medicines to help you and your baby stay healthy.
It is also good practice to get tested for HIV and know your status before having sex with a new partner for the first time. It’s always a good idea to ask about their sexual and drug use history before having sex. If you know you have HIV, tell them your status. If you are unsure of your or your partner’s HIV status, be sure to wear a condom. This can help protect your health or prevent passing the infection to others.
If you think you have been exposed to HIV or think you may have symptoms, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. Getting tested for HIV or talking to your doctor about HIV can feel both awkward and stressful. But coming prepared can help you deal with it better.
Carry a list of questions with you so that you can get the most reliable information. This can help your doctor make a treatment plan if you have HIV.
Even if you find out you don’t have HIV, this is a good time to ask questions and learn about how you can help prevent HIV infection. You may have heard of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV, which can help prevent you from getting HIV. You can ask questions like:
- How can I protect myself from HIV?
- How often should I get tested?
- Does my sex partner need testing too?
- Do you provide counseling on HIV prevention or recommend a place that does?
If you don’t want to go alone, ask a friend or family member to go with you for support. If you are diagnosed with HIV, your doctor can refer you to a number of resources to help you get the support and treatment you need to get your infection under control.
If you’re trying to persuade a close friend or loved one to get tested for HIV, Pantalone says it may help to make them think that knowing their HIV status or getting tested for it will help other people. may help stop the spread to those they know.
Stigma and lack of proper care may also exist among health care providers. But that shouldn’t stop you from getting tested or getting preventive care or treatment.
If you have a place where you go for health care and you want to start getting tested for HIV, bring it up with your health care provider. “And if that provider isn’t helpful, switch,” Pantalone says. “Going to an organization that specifically serves the HIV community is a great way to meet with open arms and no judgment.”
If you test positive for HIV, Gluckman says it’s important to remember that you are much more than that.
Gluckman says, “You are worthy of respect, you are worthy of love, you are worthy of health, you are worthy of good sex.” “HIV is just a virus.”