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At-Home HIV tests: everything you need to know

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It is so important to know your HIV status for many reasons – including potentially leading to earlier treatment if needed and helping to prevent HIV from progressing to AIDS, as well as other infections that can arise due to a weakened immune system. It’s also important to know your HIV status so you can prevent transmission to others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 40% of new HIV infections are transmitted by people who aren’t aware that they have the virus. 

The CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested for HIV at least once in their lifetimes. And they recommend getting tested once a year to every 3 to 6 months if you are in a high risk group (i.e. sexually active, a man who has had sex with another man, or use intravenous needles). 

Unfortunately, many people do not get tested enough, or at all. This could be because they have limited transportation and can’t get to a doctor’s office or clinic. Or, their work schedule may not allow them to get to a testing facility during open hours. Also, the cultural stigma around HIV and AIDS may not make people feel comfortable asking to get tested. 

The good news is there are at-home HIV tests that are a convenient alternative to in-person tests. There are two kinds of at-home HIV tests: rapid home tests and mail-in self-tests.

But how do at-home HIV tests work, how accurate are at-home HIV tests, where can you get an at-home HIV test, and are there at-home options to test for HIV for free?

How Do At-Home HIV Tests Work and Where Can You Get At-Home HIV Tests?

Rapid At-Home HIV Tests

Rapid at-home HIV testing kits typically come with a test device, sample collection materials, and instructions. These rapid at-home HIV self-tests can be purchased online or at a pharmacy retailer like Walgreens, CVS, or Walmart. However, the only FDA-approved HIV self-test currently available in the United States is an oral fluid test called the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test.

OraQuick testing kits are super easy to use. First, open the sealed test tube and remove the test stick. Then, to collect an oral sample, swab your top and bottom gums with the test stick. Finally, once your sample has been collected, insert the test stick into the test tube and wait 20 minutes before reading your results. The C-line on the test window confirms if the test has worked. If the T-line also appears, even if it’s faint, then the test is positive. If the T-line does not appear, the test is negative. The OraQuick In-Home HIV Test comes with a disposable bag that you can put your used test in before discarding it, for privacy. 

Mail-In HIV Tests

Mail-in HIV self-tests typically include a specimen collection kit with supplies to collect blood from a fingerstick. Some mail-in tests can be ordered online (Everlywell, Nurx, LetsGetChecked), or given to a patient by their healthcare provider. Mail-in tests are not FDA-approved, and users typically get results within days.

Are At-Home HIV Tests Accurate?

Yes, at-home tests are an accurate way to test for HIV. However, most at-home HIV tests are antibody-only tests, while tests performed at a doctor’s office or medical facility test for HIV antibodies and antigens, allowing them to detect an infection sooner. 

Everlywell’s at-home HIV test, however, does detect antigens so it may be a more accurate at-home HIV test option. 

According to the FDA, the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test has an expected accuracy performance of approximately 92%. This means that 1 in 12 tests results in a false negative. 

It’s important to note that the body takes up to 3 months to produce antibodies to HIV, so taking a rapid test less than 3 months after HIV exposure may not yield an accurate result. 

How Much Do At-Home HIV Tests Costs and How Can You Test For HIV At Home For Free?

Most insurance plans cover HIV tests, as required by the Affordable Care Act. Some at-home HIV tests may be covered with an HSA or FSA. But at-home HIV tests purchased directly may not be covered by health insurance and can cost between $40 to $150. Prices vary depending on the brand, features, and retailer. Ask your insurance provider or doctor about reimbursement options before purchasing one. 

If you’re worried about the cost of an at-home HIV test, there are options available to obtain a test for free. The nonprofit, Greater Than AIDS, partners with local agencies and programs to distribute at-home HIV tests. Just visit their site and enter your zip code to find out where you can get a free test. 

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