Receiving test results
How long it takes to get results from an HIV test depends on the type of test administered:
- Laboratory tests: Both viral load and antigen/antibody tests that are performed in a laboratory require blood to be sent out for testing. The results of these tests often take several days before being available.
- Rapid antibody tests: Rapid antibody tests are performed on oral fluid or blood from a fingerstick. Results for these tests are ready in 30 minutes or less.
- Rapid antigen/antibody tests: Rapid antigen/antibody tests use blood from a fingerstick and take 30 minutes or less to produce results.
- At-home oral fluid antibody tests: At-home HIV testing uses a sample of oral fluid and provides results within about 20 to 40 minutes.
For HIV tests conducted at a medical facility or community organization, a trained staff member will report your results and be available to answer any questions. Health care providers can also discuss your risk factors for HIV and advise you on next steps if the results of the HIV test are positive.
After rapid testing, you wait for the results in the facility. For laboratory testing that takes several days to receive results, you may be asked to schedule a follow-up visit or consent to receiving results by telephone.
For at-home HIV testing, results can be read according to instructions contained in the test kit. Test kits may also contain an information booklet designed to instruct users on what to do once they have obtained their test results.
Interpreting test results
HIV test results are reported as positive, negative, or indeterminate. The results of HIV tests should be interpreted with caution, as follow-up testing is often necessary and patients must take into account the test’s window period.
A window period is the time between when a person gets infected with HIV and when a test can detect the infection. No test can detect HIV immediately after infection and all HIV tests have a window period. The length of the window period varies from test to test, ranging from about 2 to 12 weeks. At-home tests have a window period of about 3 months.
A negative HIV test result means that HIV antibodies or antigens weren’t detected in the test sample. If a person has had no potential exposure to HIV within the test’s window period, they are considered negative for HIV infection. If a person has had potential exposure within the test’s window period, HIV testing must be repeated after they are past the window period.
Positive results on an HIV test need to be confirmed through follow-up testing. Laboratory tests conduct the second test on the same blood sample as the first test. If a person receives a positive result on a rapid test, the health care professional will schedule a second confirmatory test. Positive results on an at-home HIV test must be confirmed in a laboratory or health care setting. If the follow-up HIV test result is also positive, a person is considered HIV-positive.
Indeterminate results on an HIV test occur when an initial screening test is positive, then a follow-up test is negative. In this situation, doctors may order the more detailed HIV viral load test for additional confirmation.