How long does an HIV test take?

Originally Published: April 5, 1996 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: June 8, 2007
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Dear Alice,

How long does it take to get results from an HIV test?

-- Wondering

Dear Wondering,

It's great that you're planning ahead. At Columbia, the Gay Health Advocacy Project (GHAP) offers free confidential HIV testing to the entire Columbia University community. Walk-in hours are available each semester, so there's no waiting time for appointments, with results generally back the next day. If you're not at Columbia, and/or prefer anonymous HIV testing, try one of the city or state Department of Health (DOH) testing sites. For confidential and anonymous testing sites in the New York City area, call 800.TALK.HIV (825-5448), a service of the NYC DOH. This number will connect you with the NYC AIDS Hotline, which can offer the locations of testing sites closest to you, as well as answer any questions you might have about the testing procedure. For more details about HIV testing at Columbia, read HIV testing at Columbia: Can unaffiliated partners of students be tested? in Alice's Sexual Health archive.

Remember that it takes up to three months, and in rare cases up to six months, after exposure to the virus for sufficient antibodies to show after a test. If you've been exposed to the virus, for example on a Saturday night, and were tested that Monday, the test would not be able to detect infection, so it's recommended to wait for three months, or up to six months, after possible exposure to be tested. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a test after three months is probably accurate, with about 99 percent of people seroconverting or showing antibodies by six months. You may contact the CDC's National HIV/AIDS Hotline at 800.342.AIDS (-2437) for more info.

It's important to engage in safer sex (oral, vaginal, or anal) during the time you and/or your partner(s) are waiting for an appointment for testing, as well as while you're waiting for the results. Waiting for the results is often difficult, which is why HIV testing programs have built-in education and counseling before and after your test.

At times, a person's test may come back inconclusive. In that case, according to The Essential AIDS Fact Book by Paul Harding Douglas and Laura Pinsky, in cooperation with Columbia University Health Services, it's recommended that you wait four weeks and then get tested again. This same book can give you additional and in-depth information concerning accurate testing. This book is available for free to Columbia students.

For more information related to testing and HIV, call Gay Men's Health Crisis's (GMHC) Hotline at 800.AIDS.NYC (243-7692), 212.807.6655 (if you're in New York City), or TTY: 212.645.7470 (for the hearing impaired), available Monday through Friday from 10:00 A.M. to 9:00 P.M. (EST) and Saturday from 12:00 noon to 3:00 P.M. (EST). They also give up-to-date information in a caring and sensitive manner.

Also check out other Go Ask Alice! Q&As, such as HIV antibodies at 3 or 6 months and HIV conversion sickness?, to see if they answer other questions you might have.

Alice