Expert Answers Factual Answers to Your Sexual Health Questions

Anonymous on August 12, 2011

How long after unprotected sex should I wait before getting an HIV test?

I had unprotected sex with a girl and I want to find out if I have HIV. How long do I have to wait before I get an HIV test?

answered by
Eric Christoff, MD, AAHIVM on August 12, 2011

Thank you for your question. You’ve touched on an important point about HIV testing.  I’ll do my best to give you a comprehensive answer.

First, let’s talk about testing windows. A testing window is the time between being exposed to an STD and getting an accurate test result. Most STDs won’t show up on a test right away. It can take weeks, or sometimes months, before an infection shows up. Every STD is a little different.

So what’s the testing window for HIV? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,97% of infected people will develop antibodies within three months. That means that getting tested three months (12 weeks) after possible exposure will give you the most accurate test result.

If you don’t want to wait that long, you can get tested for HIV sooner with less accurate results. Early detection tests can sometimes identify the virus as soon as three weeks after exposure. So if you’re worried, you have the option to be tested at the three-week mark. If your test comes back negative, it’s a good idea get tested again at three months to confirm your results.

In some rare cases, it can take up to six months for an HIV infection to show up. If your three-month test comes back negative, you’re probably safe. But talk to a health professional about your need for a final test at the six-month mark just to be sure.

While you’re getting tested for HIV…you may also want to get tested for some other common STDs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis B and C, herpes 1 & 2 and syphilis. Why? Because if you have reason to believe that you’re at risk for HIV, you may also be at risk for these other STDs.

Remember, many STDs show no signs or symptoms for a long time, and can be spread by something as simple as oral sex or skin-to-skin contact with an infected person. Getting tested is the only way to know for sure whether you have an STD.

If you test positive for HIV or another STD, don’t panic. Some STDs, like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, can be cured with proper treatment. All STDs, including HIV and herpes, can be treated and managed to avoid or reduce the severity of potential complications from untreated STDs down the road. You should also notify all recent sexual partners if you test positive, so they can get tested, too, and treated if appropriate.

In future, you can reduce your risks of STDs by practicing safer sex. Having sex with multiple partners, particularly if you don’t use a condom or dental dam with every sexual encounter, increases your risk of contracting an STD.

To reduce your risk, make sure you use protection during all sexual activity – especially oral, anal or vaginal sex. Being monogamous (having only one sexual partner) and getting tested regularly (at least once a year) also reduce your risk.

If you have more questions about HIV risk factors, symptoms, testing or treatment, see our Expert Guide to HIV. For more general information about sexually transmitted infections, I suggest that you browse our Expert Guide to STD Basics.

Please take care of yourself and your partners. I wish you all the best.

Related info:

Eric Christoff, MD, AAHIVM

Dr. Christoff is a practicing physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, as well as Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. His areas of expertise include the treatment of HIV and syphilis along with other STDs, the medical treatment of depression and chronic fatigue, and the specific health needs of gay and lesbian patients. Dr. Christoff was educated at the University of Toledo, College of Medicine and completed his residency at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, IL.

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