Testing for HIV

Think you may be at risk for HIV infection? Don’t know what to do next? We can help.

First, take a deep breath. Remember, learning your HIV status is the first step toward taking care of your health, no matter what the test result.

Next, follow these steps to get the answers you need:

1. Find a test:

  • We offer free, confidential HIV testing at a number of locations in San Francisco
  • You can also ask your doctor or medical provider for an HIV test
  • Search AIDS.gov online online for a testing site near you

How soon should you get tested? And what kind of test should you request?

  • If you are sure or nearly sure you were exposed to HIV very recently, consider asking for an RNA test, which can detect fragments of the virus within 10 to 14 days after exposure to HIV. Be as honest as possible about what you were doing when you were potentially exposed, and ask if you should consider post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).
  • If you aren’t so sure, a standard antibody test gives accurate results within 4-6 weeks, but can take up to 3 months after exposure. So you can't be sure you're negative until three months after exposure, based on an antibody test.
  • Fourth generation rapid antibody/antigen combination tests can detect either antibodies to HIV or fragments of the virus within 2 - 3 weeks of infection.

2. If your test comes back negative:

  • Schedule a follow-up test. If you had an antibody test less than three months after you might have been exposed, you should plan to get tested again to make sure you're negative. (Why?)
  • Re-think your risk. Take this opportunity to rethink behaviors that put you at risk for HIV, and consider strategies to reduce your risk.
  • Test and repeat. Make regular HIV and STD testing part of a healthy sex life. No matter what you’re into, get tested every three months.
  • Think about PrEP: If your sexual activities repeatedly put you at high risk for HIV, a prevention strategy called PrEP (short for pre-exposure prophylaxis) might be a good fit. PrEP involves taking a pill every day to prevent HIV. Learn more about PrEP, and ask your doctor if it might be right for you. (Be aware that PrEP only works against HIV, not other STIs like syphilis and gonorrhea.)

3. If your test comes back positive:

  • Don't panic. Remember, HIV today is a manageable disease. With good and consistent care, you can live a long and healthy life.
  • See a doctor, even if you don’t feel sick. HIV does not always trigger symptoms, even for years, but the sooner you begin treatment the better your chances of staying healthy.
  • Find a support system. The emotional and physical challenges ahead can be difficult, and having people around to help is important. In San Francisco, we offer a variety of counseling and support groups for HIV-positive people, including PLUS, a weekend-long educational workshop for those newly dealing with an HIV diagnosis.
  • Don’t pass it on. Make sure you adapt your sex practices so you can avoid sharing the virus with others. Latex condoms (used with water-based or silicone-based lube) can protect your sex partners from HIV. Take a moment to talk about your HIV status with your partner(s). It will help you and your sex partners decide on sexual activities you’re comfortable with. Getting on HIV medications, and getting your viral load to undetectable levels, makes it less likely that you will pass HIV on to a sex partner. Learn more about relative risk of different activities.


Your HIV test result “expires” every time you have any sexual activity that puts you at risk for HIV (what's risky?). Make testing a part of your sexual health routine so you’re aware of your most current HIV status.

We recommend that every sexually active person get tested for HIV at least once a year. If you identify as a gay or bisexual man, and are currently HIV-negative, we recommend you get tested every 3 months if you are sexually active.

Dig Deeper:

  • BETA Blog. On our HIV blog, we report on the latest developments in HIV research, including testing technology.
  • AIDS.gov has extensive information about HIV test types, including home tests. The site is managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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