The Basics: Overview
HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. If you have HIV, getting treatment early can help you live a long, healthy life.
The only way to know if you have HIV is to get tested. You could have HIV and still feel healthy.
How often do I need to get tested for HIV?
Everyone ages 15 to 65 needs to get tested for HIV at least once. All pregnant women also need to get tested. People at higher risk for HIV infection may need to get tested more often.
Talk to your doctor or nurse about how often you need to get tested.
Get tested for HIV at least once a year if you're at higher risk.
For example, you may be at higher risk for HIV if you:
- Are a man who has sex with men
- Have sex with someone who has HIV
- Use drugs with needles
- Have sex in exchange for things, like drugs or money
- Have more than 1 sex partner who could have HIV
- Have another STD (sexually transmitted disease)
If you're a man who has sex with men, you may need to get tested even more often — like every 3 to 6 months. Talk to your doctor or nurse about what's best for you.
The Basics: HIV
What is HIV?
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus — the virus that causes AIDS. There's no cure yet for HIV/AIDS, but there are treatments that can help people live long, healthy lives.
How do people get HIV?
HIV spreads through body fluids, like blood, semen (cum), vaginal fluids, and breast milk. HIV can pass from one person to another through:
- Sex (vaginal or anal) without a condom with a person who has HIV
- Sharing needles with someone who has HIV
- Breastfeeding, pregnancy, or childbirth if the mother has HIV
Learn more about HIV/AIDS:
The Basics: HIV Testing
Why do I need to get tested for HIV?
The only way to know if you have HIV is to get tested. Many people with HIV don’t have any symptoms. In the United States, about 1 in 7 people who have HIV don't know they have it.
Once you’ve gotten tested for HIV:
- If you don’t have HIV (you're HIV-negative), you can take steps to make sure you stay HIV-free
- If you have HIV (you're HIV-positive), you can take steps to have a healthier future — you can also take steps to protect other people
Live longer with HIV by getting treatment early.
If you have HIV, early treatment can help you live a long, healthy life. It’s important to get early treatment for HIV even if you don’t feel sick. The sooner you get care for HIV, the better.
- Find out about treatment options for HIV
- Get information about staying in medical care for HIV
- Use this tool to find services for people with HIV or AIDS, like housing assistance, health centers, and counseling
Protect yourself and others.
If you have HIV and you're pregnant or thinking about getting pregnant, learn how to prevent passing HIV to your baby.
The Basics: Testing Options
How can I get tested for HIV?
You can get an HIV test at a doctor's office or clinic — or you can test yourself at home. There are different types of HIV tests. Some use a sample of your blood and some use saliva (spit).
How long does it take to get the test results?
It depends on the type of HIV test you get.
- Lab tests take a few days to give results
- Rapid tests give results in 30 minutes or less
- Home test results can be ready in 20 minutes
If your test shows that you have HIV, you'll need a second HIV test to be sure. Find out more about the different types of HIV tests.
What’s the difference between confidential and anonymous testing?
When you get tested at a doctor’s office or clinic, your test results are confidential. This means they can only be shared with people allowed to see your medical records.
If you're worried about giving your name, you can get an anonymous HIV test at some clinics. This means that you don’t have to give your name. Learn more about confidential and anonymous HIV testing.
Take Action: Get Tested
Take these steps to protect yourself and others from HIV.
Find a place to get tested.
You can get an HIV test at your local health clinic, HIV testing center, hospital, or health department. Your regular doctor can also test you for HIV.
To find an HIV testing center near you:
- Enter your ZIP code to find local testing sites
- Call 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636)
- Use this online form to email CDC-INFO
If you want to know more about HIV testing and prevention, take this list of questions to your appointment.
What about cost?
Free HIV testing is available at some testing centers and health clinics.
Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance plans must cover HIV testing for everyone ages 15 to 65 — and for others who are at higher risk for HIV. HIV counseling is also covered for teens who are sexually active and adults at increased risk for STDs. Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get HIV testing and counseling at no cost to you. Check with your insurance company to find out more.
Medicare may also cover HIV screening for certain groups at no cost. If you have Medicare, learn about Medicare coverage for HIV screening.
If you don’t have insurance, you may still be able to get free or low-cost HIV testing. Find a health center near you and ask about HIV testing.
To learn more, check out these resources:
Take Action: Protect Yourself
Take steps to protect yourself from HIV.
The best way to protect yourself from HIV is to not have sex unless you're in a relationship with only 1 person and you have both tested negative.
Here are some other steps you can take to help prevent HIV:
- Use a latex condom with water-based lubricant every time you have vaginal or anal sex. Check out these condoms dos and don'ts.
- Get tested for other STDs and get treatment if you need to. Learn which STD tests you may need.
- Don’t inject drugs or share needles. If you do inject drugs, check out these safety tips.
Take medicine to lower your risk of HIV.
If you’re at higher risk for HIV — like if you’re in a relationship with someone who's HIV-positive — you can take a medicine called PrEP every day to lower your risk of getting HIV. Talk with your doctor about your risk and ask if PrEP is right for you.
Take Action: Talk About It
Talk with your partner about getting tested.
It’s important to make time to talk before having sex. Ask your partner to get tested for HIV and other STDs — or offer to get tested together.
Use these tips to start the conversation:
Get counseling about HIV prevention.
If you want more information about preventing HIV, ask your local testing center if they offer prevention counseling. You may want counseling if:
- You're worried about getting HIV
- You're interested in taking PrEP to reduce your risk of HIV
- You have HIV and are worried about giving it to someone else
Content last updated November 4, 2021
This information on HIV was adapted from materials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
Associate Director for Science
Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention
National Center for HIV/AID, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention