HIV testing 

The only way to find out if you have HIV is to have an HIV test, as symptoms of HIV may not appear for many years.

HIV testing is provided to anyone free of charge on the NHS. Many clinics can give you the result on the same day and home-testing and home-sampling kits are also available.

Who should get tested?

Anyone who thinks they could have HIV should get tested.

Certain groups of people are at particularly high risk and are advised to have regular tests. For example:

  • men who have sex with men are advised to have an HIV test at least once a year, or every three months if they're having unprotected sex with new or casual partners
  • black African men and women are advised to have an HIV test, and a regular HIV and STI screen, if they're having unprotected sex with new or casual partners

Other people at an increased risk of infection include those who share needles, syringes or other injecting equipment. Read more about how you get HIV.

When should I get tested?

Seek medical advice immediately if you think there's a chance you could have HIV. The earlier it's diagnosed, the earlier you can start treatment and avoid becoming seriously ill.

Some HIV tests may need to be repeated one to three months after exposure to HIV infection, but you shouldn't wait this long to seek help. Your GP or a sexual health professional can talk to you about having a test and discuss whether you should take emergency HIV medication.

Anti-HIV medication, called PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) may stop you becoming infected if taken within 72 hours of being exposed to the virus. Read more about treating HIV.

Where can I get an HIV test?

There are various places you can go to for an HIV test, including:

  • sexual health or genitourinary medicine (GUM) clinics 
  • clinics run by charities such as the Terrence Higgins Trust 
  • some GP surgeries
  • some contraception and young people's clinics
  • local drug dependency services
  • an antenatal clinic, if you're pregnant
  • a private clinic, where you will have to pay

Find HIV testing services near you

There are also home-sampling and home-testing kits (see below) you can use if you don't want to visit any of these places.

Types of HIV test

There are four main types of HIV test:

  • Full blood test – where a sample of blood is taken in a clinic and sent for testing in a laboratory. Results are usually available within a few days.
  • "Point of care" test – where a sample of saliva from your mouth or a small spot of blood from your finger is taken in a clinic. This sample doesn't need to be sent to a laboratory and the result is available within a few minutes.
  • Home-sampling kit – where you collect a saliva sample or small spot of blood at home and send it off in the post for testing. You'll be contacted by phone or text with your result in a few days. Visit Test.HIV to check if you're eligible for a free test. If not, you can buy them online or from some pharmacies.
  • Home-testing kit – where you collect a saliva sample or small spot of blood yourself and test it at home. The result is available within minutes. It's important to check that any test you buy has a CE quality assurance mark and is licensed for sale in the UK, as poor quality HIV self-tests are available from overseas.

If the test finds no sign of infection, your result is "negative". If signs of infection are found, the result is "positive".

The full blood test is the most accurate test and can normally give reliable results from one month after infection. The other tests tend to be less accurate and may not give a reliable result for a longer period after exposure to the infection (this is known as the "window period").

For all these tests, a full blood test should be carried out to confirm the result if the first test is positive. If this test is also positive, you'll be referred to a specialist HIV clinic for some more tests and a discussion about your treatment options.

Read more about coping with a positive HIV test.

Screening for HIV in pregnancy

All pregnant woman are offered a blood test to check if they have HIV as part of routine antenatal screening.

If untreated, HIV can be passed from a pregnant woman to her baby during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. Treatment in pregnancy greatly reduces the risk of passing on HIV to the baby.

Read more about screening for HIV during pregnancy.

Page last reviewed: 08/09/2014

Next review due: 08/09/2016