If you know about your HIV infection, you can do a great deal to protect your health. Beginning HIV therapy at the proper time can prevent you from becoming ill with AIDS. On the other hand, beginning therapy too late can cost you several years of your life.
You should be tested if there is a real risk of infection exists. That is usually the case when you have had unprotected sex (anal or vaginal intercourse without a condom) with a partner who could be HIV-positive. There is also a high risk of infection from sharing needles.
The test does not prove the presence of the virus itself, but rather the existence of antibodies. The body needs up to six weeks to generate these antibodies. If you want to be certain that you are not infected, you should be tested three months after the last possible risky situation. Before that, the test cannot show for certain that you are not infected.
A laboratory test usually takes three to five days. If that test returns a positive result, a confirmatory test is carried out at the same time using another technique. This ensures that the test result is not a false-positive, as can occur in rare cases. Only then would it be considered a positive test result.
Rapid tests ("HIV-Schnelltests") deliver a result in 30 minutes. They do not shorten the waiting time of 90 days, however (see question 3). One problem with the use of rapid tests is that if the result is positive, it takes three to five days for another test to be done to confirm the result, before the result can be considered certain (see question 4). If the initial positive result was false, you would have worried needlessly during that time.
Home testing kits are expensive and are frequently unreliable. Using them properly also requires a high degree of skill. Incorrect use therefore leads to a high rate of mistakes and false results. Home tests can also return a false-positive result, so once again, a confirmatory test is required.
The test result shows whether you were infected with HIV six weeks ago or not. If that was the case, antibodies against the virus will have been produced in the meantime, which the test can identify. If these antibodies are present, you are definitely infected with HIV. A negative result, however, does not mean that you are definitely not infected. If there has been any risk of infection in the meantime, the test may not be able to identify the infection yet. Another test is necessary - six weeks after the last risk.
In many cases the test is free; for example, for students, the unemployed, those receiving unemployment benefits II ("ALG-2" or "Hartz IV"). An anonymous test can cost 10 to 15 euros, in some cases more.
A counseling session can determine whether there was really a risk of infection or whether you are worrying unnecessarily. Counseling can also determine whether the right time to take the test has come (see question 3). A discussion can fill in gaps in your knowledge about the risks of infection and ways to protect yourself.
A test carried out by your family doctor is on the record of the health insurance fund (but not the result!). This could have consequences later when taking out an insurance policy. An anonymous test protects you from this.
The HIV test is offered by doctors, government health agencies ("Gesundheitsamt"), AIDS service organization and service organizations for gay men. Local AIDS service organizations can tell you about testing options. More information about this can be found in the section on Counseling.