Look out for yourself and get an HIV test.


What is HIV/AIDS?

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It’s similar to other viruses, such as those that cause colds and the flu, with one important difference — the human body cannot get rid of HIV. That means if you get HIV, you get it for life.

HIV attacks cells in your blood called CD4 cells or T-cells. These cells are responsible for helping your body fight infections and diseases. After HIV takes hold of these cells, they are destroyed, leading to a weakened immune system.

Without proper treatment, a person living with HIV can develop AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection. People in this stage of the disease have badly damaged immune systems. People are diagnosed with AIDS when they have one or more specific infections, certain cancers, or a very low number of CD4 cells.

While there is no cure for HIV, it can be managed. That is why it is important to get tested and to seek medical treatment as soon as possible if HIV is detected. There are many HIV-positive people leading healthier, more productive lives with the use of effective treatments.

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The truth is any person who has had unprotected sex (anal, vaginal, or oral sex without a condom) has a chance of getting HIV—male or female, gay or straight.

How is HIV spread?

HIV is transmitted from one person to another:

  • By having unprotected sex (anal, vaginal, or oral sex without a condom) with a person who has HIV. HIV can be transmitted through blood, vaginal fluid, and pre-seminal fluid and semen (also known as pre-cum and cum).
  • By sharing needles, syringes, or other injection equipment with a person who injects drugs and has HIV.
  • Through pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. Women who have HIV can give the disease to their babies before or during birth or through breastfeeding after birth.

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While both unprotected vaginal and anal sex pose a risk for HIV transmission, having unprotected anal sex puts you at even greater risk for getting HIV than unprotected vaginal sex.

How can I protect myself from HIV?

There are several ways you can reduce your risk for getting HIV. Below are few things you can do to look out for yourself and stay healthy.

  1. 1. Don’t have sex.
    Most women get HIV by having unprotected sex with a man who has HIV. Abstinence is the only way to ensure that you won’t get HIV through sexual contact. However, there are other sexual behaviors that have less risk of transmitting HIV than vaginal or anal sex, such as kissing or outercourse (also known as “dry humping” or “grinding").
  2. 2. Be faithful.
    You can lower your chances of getting HIV by only having sex with one partner who does not have HIV and only has sex with you. Your chances of getting HIV will also be lower if both of you have recently tested negative for HIV.
  3. Also, talk to your partner about sex and HIV. Learn as much as you can about his past behavior (sex and drug use) and consider the risks to your health before you have sex.
  4. 3. Use a condom.
  5. If you do have sex, use a condom every time. Using condoms reduces your risk of HIV.
  6. These birth control methods do NOT protect you from HIV:
  • “The Pill”
  • Diaphragms
  • Shots
  • Implants
  • Nonoxynol-9 (N-9)

Male and female condoms are the only effective form of birth control that also helps reduce the risk of transmission for HIV and most other STDs.

  1. 4. Don’t share certain items.
    Don’t share anything (including needles or syringes) that might bring you into contact with someone else’s blood or bodily fluids. HIV is not transmitted by casual contact, so it’s ok to shake hands or share dishes with someone who is living with HIV.
  2. 5. Don’t mix alcohol and drugs with sex.
    If you have sex when you are drinking alcohol or taking drugs, you are more likely to make unsafe sexual decisions.
  3. 6. Get tested for STDs.
    If you think you may have been exposed to another STD such as gonorrhea, syphilis, or chlamydia, get tested. Being infected with other STDs makes you much more likely to get HIV than a person who doesn’t have any STDs. So get tested (and treated, if necessary) for STDs.i Find an STD testing site near you by typing your ZIP code into the testing site locator.

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Though the risk of getting HIV through vaginal secretions and menstrual blood is well- documented, there are no confirmed cases of HIV transmissions by female-to-female sexual contact. Nonetheless, women who have sex with women should also use the steps listed above to protect themselves from HIV.

When should I get tested for HIV?

If you have had unprotected sex or taken other risks that may have exposed you to HIV, get tested. But remember — your infection may not show up immediately in an HIV test. Most HIV tests measure the antibodies (special proteins the body makes to fight HIV) produced by the body once infected by HIV. It can take some time for these antibodies to show up in a test. This time period can vary from person to person. This time period is commonly referred to as the “window period.”

Most people will develop antibodies that standard HIV tests can detect within 2-8 weeks. But, there is a chance that some people will take longer to develop antibodies. So, you may need multiple tests to ensure you were not infected. For example, if you got an HIV test within the first three months after possible exposure, you should get another test after three months have passed in case the first test occurred during your window period. Ninety-seven percent of people will develop antibodies in the first three months following the time of their infection. In very rare cases, it can take up to six months to develop antibodies to HIV.

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If so, it is important that you get tested for HIV prior to getting pregnant. If you become pregnant and have HIV but don’t know it, you risk passing the virus on to your baby. If you are HIV-positive and pregnant, there are antiretroviral medications that can greatly lower the risk of mother-to-child HIV transmission (if taken early and as prescribed).

Bottom line: it is important to know your status before getting pregnant to ensure the health of your child. To find out more, please visit the CDC’s HIV and Pregnancy and Childbirth page.

How can I get tested for HIV?

There are several different types of tests used to detect HIV infection. Health professionals can use tests to detect the presence of HIV by:

  • Checking your blood.
    A health professional can take a sample of blood from your vein or finger. This is a very common way to get an HIV test. Most blood tests check for HIV antibodies, special proteins the body makes to fight HIV when it enters the body.

    Some blood tests, called RNA tests, look for the HIV genetic material and can detect very early infection cases when antibody tests are not yet able to detect antibodies to HIV. These tests are not widely used to diagnose HIV infection.
  • Swabbing your mouth.
    A health professional can swab the inside of your mouth, around your outer gums, both upper and lower — no needles required. This tests the oral fluid inside your mouth, which is slightly different than your saliva. Oral tests detect HIV antibodies. This is becoming a more common way to get an HIV test, but it is not available everywhere.
  • Checking your urine.
    Urine tests use urine to look for antibodies to HIV, but are not as accurate or effective as blood and oral fluid tests.
  • Want to find out quickly?
    Some tests may require you to wait up to two weeks for results, but “rapid HIV tests” can provide results very quickly — in as little as 20 minutes. Similar to the traditional antibody tests, rapid tests use blood from a vein or finger stick, or oral fluid to look for antibodies to HIV. As is true for all screening tests, a positive reactive rapid HIV test result must be confirmed with a follow-up test before a diagnosis can be made. Rapid tests have similar accuracy rates as other traditional screening tests.
  • What about home testing kits?
    Although home testing kits are sometimes advertised through the Internet, the Home Access HIV-1 Test Systemexternal_link is the only one approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This test kit is available online and through some major pharmacy chains. You should only use a home test kit that is approved by the FDA.

Getting tested for HIV is an important step in taking charge of your life. More and more black women are standing up and getting tested for HIV. They are looking out for themselves and doing what they need to do to stay healthy. Regardless of the results, there are treatment and support programs available to help you live a healthy and productive life. To find an HIV testing location near you, use the Take Charge. Take the Test.™ site locator or call 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636).

What if I test negative for HIV?

If you receive a negative HIV test result within the “window period”, you need to have a follow-up test to confirm your results. See When should I get tested for HIV? for more information. You can also confirm when you need to be retested with a health professional.

If you receive a negative test after the window period, remember there are things you can do to stay negative. See How can I protect myself from HIV? for ways to prevent HIV infection.

What if I test positive for HIV?

If your confirmatory test is positive, the first thing you should do is remember there is a lot of help there for you. You are not alone. See this Newly Diagnosed Checklistexternal_link for more information on taking the first steps to managing your HIV diagnosis.

Your doctor will help you make a plan to manage your health. Getting treatment for HIV can save your life and protect others. Antiretroviral medications can help those infected with HIV live with the disease and lengthen their lives. To learn more about HIV treatment options, check out CDC's HIV/AIDS treatment website.

i Wasserheit JN. 1992. Epidemiologic synergy: Interrelationships between human immunodeficiency virus infection and other sexually transmitted diseases. Sexually Transmitted Diseases 9:61-77.