March 3, 2022

What Happens When You Test Positive for HIV?

It is vital to be tested regularly for HIV if you are at risk of transmission or potentially exposed. Sadly, many people hold back from getting tested for fear of a positive HIV test. The CDC recommends that anyone above the age of 13 be tested for HIV at least once in their life. Regular testing every 3 to 6 months is advisable for people in higher-risk categories. 

Often, people do not go to get tested because they are simply unaware of their risk of transmission or they are afraid of the results. It is estimated that 13% of the 1.2 million people in the USA who are living with HIV do not know their current status. 

But getting tested as soon as possible after a potential exposure is the best way to find a treatment plan. Remember, HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids from one person to another – most commonly sexual intercourse or shared intravenous needles. While prevention methods like condoms can lower your risk, it is advisable to be tested as soon as possible after potential exposure. 

You can go to your doctor’s office or a local clinic to test for HIV – but what happens if you have a positive HIV test?

Your Doctor Will Provide You with Test Results

A doctor will provide the test results with you, either in person or over the phone. They may advise you to get a second HIV test to confirm the results, depending on the initial type of test and the time period between exposure.  

Types of HIV Tests

Several types of HIV tests are available that are offered depending on the time that has passed since exposure. 

If it has been less than 72 hours since the potential or confirmed exposure, your doctor will likely start you on PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) immediately. This is a medication regimen that stops the virus from spreading in the body. If provided soon enough after exposure, it can prevent transmission. 

Several types of rapid tests are available that require either a finger prick or an oral swab. These will give results in 20 to 30 minutes, but they may not be as accurate as other types of tests.

The FDA has also approved some at-home HIV tests which are available at some pharmacies or through health clinics. These are not as accurate as tests given by medical professionals. So, if an at-home HIV test is positive, you should schedule another test to be sure. 

If more time has passed since the exposure, then a blood or urine sample will be taken for testing. A nucleic acid test (NAC) is used if it has been 10 to 33 days since the exposure. If it has been several weeks since the exposure, either an antigen or antibody test is offered to detect the virus. These are considered the most accurate HIV test types, but these can only be given several weeks after exposure. 

If you have only recently been exposed, your doctor may recommend a follow-up test to ensure accuracy. NAT, antigen, and antibody tests are about 99% accurate, whereas rapid tests have an accuracy rate of 95%. 

What Does a Positive HIV Test Result Mean? 

Hearing from a doctor that your HIV test came back positive can be very scary. But it is important to understand what this result means. 

A positive test result means that a measurable amount of virus is detected in your blood. HIV reproduces by overtaking healthy cells, which eventually suppress the immune system. The amount of viral cells in the body is called the viral load. The lower your viral load is, the more manageable and controllable the disease will be. 

Getting tested as quickly as possible after exposure is so important. If you can detect HIV quickly, you can start treatment sooner. This will lower the risk of complications and negative side effects from the disease. 

Testing Positive for HIV Does Not Mean You Have AIDS

Another important thing to note is that a positive HIV test does not mean that you have AIDS. Many people correlate HIV with AIDS, but this is a big misunderstanding.

Difference Between HIV and AIDS

HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus – meaning that over time, it damages the host’s immune system if left untreated. Eventually, the immune system can become so weak that it can’t fight off any other diseases. If the disease progresses this far, it is considered AIDS or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. 

HIV is Manageable with Medication 

HIV is controllable with medication and treatment, and you can live a normal, healthy life. You can receive HIV medication after exposure and a positive test result to prevent the virus from reproducing in the body. This is known as ART or antiretroviral therapy.

You Will Start an ART Medication

Your doctor will discuss the next steps to take after your HIV diagnosis. Most likely, they will recommend ART therapy right away. So, how does antiretroviral therapy (ART) work?

Controls the Viral Load

This medication will help to keep your viral load as low as possible. This drug prevents the virus from multiplying. This in turn relieves the immune system so it is not constantly trying to fight off the disease. 

There may be some side effects from this medication, such as:

  • Allergic reactions
  • Heart disease
  • High blood sugar or diabetes
  • Bone loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue

Other Health Precautions 

You will likely need to visit your doctor regularly for checkups, lab tests, and health screenings to ensure that you are otherwise healthy.  Your doctor will monitor your overall health to confirm that the ART medications are not causing damage to organs like the kidneys or liver. They also conduct drug-resistance testing to verify that the medication is at the right dosage level. 

The Goal Will be to Reach an Undetectable Viral Load

Although there is currently no cure for this disease, you can live a healthy life after an HIV diagnosis. HIV medication will suppress the virus and protect the immune system from damage. This stops the progression of HIV to AIDS and can even make it impossible to transmit to another person, known as U=U. 

The term U=U means that when the viral load is suppressed through medication, you cannot pass it on to someone else. This term stands for undetectable equals untransmittable. While this means that the risk of transmission is nearly 0%, most health providers will recommend that you err on the side of caution by using condoms and not sharing needles with others. 

The Wrap Up

If you have received a positive HIV test or know someone who has, you probably have a lot of questions. The good news is that organizations like SIDE by SIDE are here to answer them. Our organization offers resources to answer questions and concerns and we can get you connected with health providers in your area for testing and treatment. 

Connect with us to learn more about common FAQs like:

  • Where to get tested for HIV?
  • How early can HIV be detected?
  • What is usually the first sign of HIV?
  • How do I talk to people about my HIV status?

Support and getting accurate, helpful information can help all of us end HIV together. Reach out to SIDE by SIDE today for any type of assistance you need; we’re more than happy to help.


Learn more about HIV


Get more information about living with HIV

Get Tested

Find testing and prevention resources


A collection of answers and resources

We’re here to connect you to the information and resources you need.

Do you have questions about HIV? Do you want to know more about testing, connecting to care, or how to show support? Are you interested in learning more about how SIDE BY SIDE can help your community? Fill out this contact form and someone from our team will be happy to help you find answers.


Please be sure to include your preferred method of contact. We respect your privacy and we do not share your information without your permission