Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to knowing your HIV status.
People may avoid getting an HIV test, in fear of how a positive result will affect their social life and wellbeing. And here's a startling but sobering stat: One in seven people with HIV do not know they have it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In this situation, ignorance is not bliss. In fact, there's a higher risk for you and your partner(s) to spread and contract chronic or terminal illnesses.
Learning this can be scary, but the consequences of delaying treatment are scarier. If you’re reading this article, it's time to schedule your test.
When Should I Get An HIV Test?
The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 gets tested for HIV at least once as part of routine health care (once you're sexually active).
People in high-risk groups should seek testing more often (once a year), like if you:
- Have had anal or vaginal sex in the past 6 months, and:
a) have a sexual partner with HIV (especially if the partner has an unknown or detectable viral load)
b) have not consistently used a condom
c) have an STD diagnosis in the past 6 months
- Injected drugs and you:
a) have a partner with HIV who also uses
b) share needles, syringes, or other equipment
People who were formerly incarcerated or unhoused should also get an HIV test as soon as they're able, due to the environments they've endured. Depending on where you are located, there are clinics where this is offered free.
FYI, at your regular doctor, OB/GYN, or urgent care locations that take insurance, you may even have to specially request and consent to getting an HIV test separately when you ask for any regular STI screening. This is a relic of an era when those who tested positive feared any breach of privacy and the resulting stigma or discrimination. New York and Nebraska are the last two states holding out and requiring this practice, against CDC recommendation. All other states now wait for patients to opt out of HIV testing.
Get tested for HIV outside of your routine screening if you:
- Experienced sexual assault and you don’t know that person’s status
- Found out that someone you recently had sex with has HIV
- Accidentally came in contact with used needles
- Become pregnant, to know your risk of passing it on to your child
- Developed flu-like symptoms
- Decided that you want to start PrEP
Insurance covers the test, and it is also in your community’s best interest to control the spread. If you don’t have insurance or know you can’t afford it, you have options at certain public clinics to get the health care you deserve.
Bottom Line: Not Knowing is Way Scarier Than a Positive Result
Knowing your status is actually empowering. If it turns out you're positive, today’s antiretroviral therapies can reduce your viral load. It will be undetectable, keeping your partner(s) safe. The sooner you start treatment, and the more consistently you keep up with it, the higher the chance that you will avoid developing AIDS.
HIV is no longer a death sentence. As we’ve learned from our current global pandemic, viruses “don’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints” (thanks for the reminder of this idiom, Hamilton: An American Musical). Some engage in risky behavior and don't get infected, while others test positive after thinking they’ve taken every precaution.
What’s most important is that you put your health before your pride—and ensure you don’t spread the virus to any present or future partner. It is possible to have a normal, healthy sex life with HIV, as long as you know that you have it and become proactive about treating it and preventing spread.
Stella A. Safo, MD, is an HIV primary care physician and assistant professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital.
- HIV Testing. Washington, D.C.: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020. (Accessed on June 15, 2021)
- Who Should Get Tested? Washington, D.C.: America’s HIV Epidemic Analysis Dashboard (AHEAD) Clinical Information HIV.gov, 2020. (Accessed on June 15, 2021)
- State HIV Testing Laws: Consent and Counseling Requirements. Washington, D.C.: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017. (Accessed on June 15, 2021)