How effective is at-home HIV testing kit?

Originally Published: June 13, 2008 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 22, 2009
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Dear Alice,

I got tested for HIV 1.5 years ago. Since then I've been with two other people. One guy was a virgin but we had unprotected sex sometimes. He was tested in December (after us being together for 1 year) and it came back negative. I'm afraid to get tested again because I heard that the guy I was with 2 years ago before I was tested is HIV positive. I was already tested after I heard this and it came back negative. But people around campus just won't stopped talking and I'm starting to panic. So I thought about doing an at home test because I'm too scared to go to the clinic. I found an at home test that says that you can get at home results in 15 minutes.

It's called the HOME ACCESS and it says it's FDA-approved. Is this accurate? Also, In have another question, with the information I provided you do you think I'm at risk?

Dear Reader,

Getting tested for HIV can be an anxiety-producing experience, so it is completely understandable that hearing rumors about a past partner's HIV-status would make getting tested even scarier. But it sounds like you realize that getting tested is an important part of staying well-informed and proactive about your health and the health of your future or current partners, and therefore a very good idea. 

There are many home-testing HIV kits on the market that claim to be FDA-approved and 99 percent accurate. However, there is actually only one test that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This approved test is manufactured by Home Access Health Corporation, and it's called "Home Access HIV-1 Test System" or "The Home Access Express HIV-1 Test System." This testing kit allows you to collect a blood sample at home. You would then mail the sample to a lab where trained technicians test it for HIV and mail the results to you. This can all be done anonymously. A more accurate name for this test would be a "home sample-collection system," as the actual testing of the blood still happens in a laboratory.

Some unapproved tests on the market say that they can provide results at home in 15 minutes or less. As a rule, any testing system in which the sample is analyzed at home instead of a laboratory is not approved by the FDA, including the product you found online. The website for "HIV Self Test Kit" most likely mentions Home Access so they can use the phrase "FDA-Approved" on their website. The product they are selling claming results at home in 15 minutes is actually not FDA-approved. The real thing, the Home Access test system that uses a laboratory to test your blood sample, has been shown to correctly identify 100 percent of HIV-positive samples and 99.5 percent of HIV-negative samples. Home testing kits that are not reviewed or approved by the FDA should be met with caution or avoided. Getting an HIV diagnosis can carry with it many emotional and heath repercussions, making accurate, laboratory-verified results all the more valuable.

The fastest test that can be done for HIV is a rapid test. This is performed at a clinic where a health care professional takes a sample and tests the sample on-site. With this method, you could get results in 20 minutes, which is much faster than the mailing back and forth involved in a home-testing situation. Another advantage of visiting a clinic is the counseling clinicians provide about safer sex practices, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and your results. Clinics can test you for HIV through a variety of methods, using samples of blood, oral tissue, or urine, all of which have been approved by FDA.

It is often possible to find free and/or anonymous testing through a variety of sources such as Planned Parenthood or your local health department. Columbia students and their partners can be tested for free at Primary Care Medical Services. You can make an appointment through Open Communicator, or you can drop in during walk-in hours which are listed on the GHAP website.

To answer your second question about being at risk, it's never easy to determine how likely it is that you've been infected. If you think you have been exposed to HIV, then it's a good idea to get tested (and in your case, even get tested again, if you need the peace of mind). More information on HIV transmission and testing can be found in the links to archived Go Ask Alice! articles below. Whether you chose to do the test at home or in an office, congratulations on confronting the fear and getting tested.

Alice