HIV tests

Updated on:
May 4, 2022

Getting tested for HIV usually involves drawing blood and screening it for the infection. There are two main types of HIV testing in Canada: laboratory testing and rapid testing. Laboratory testing, the most common method, involves drawing blood from one’s arm and sending it to a laboratory for testing. Rapid testing usually involves a finger needle prick to draw blood drops.

Getting tested for HIV is free for anyone in Canada.

What tests are available for HIV?

There are different types of technologies used in Canada to detect HIV in the body. These tests can vary in how they detect HIV, their window period, and result mechanism.

Laboratory Testing

The most common HIV testing method is laboratory testing, where they draw blood from a person’s vein and send it to a laboratory for analysis. All labs in Canada use a fourth-generation test to screen blood samples. If a test comes back positive for HIV, another test is done to confirm the HIV-positive status.

Usually, it can take up to one or two weeks to receive the results from a laboratory HIV test..

Rapid Testing

Rapid HIV testing requires a drop of blood from a finger prick to perform the test. Point of Care testing is when a Rapid HIV test is performed by a healthcare provider whereas self-testing allows somebody to test for HIV themselves.There is only one Rapid HIV test approved for use in Canada - INSTI HIV-1/HIV-2 Antibody Test. Results can be provided within minutes. HIV self-tests are also an option.

When a Rapid HIV test indicates a positive result, a blood sample may be sent to a laboratory to confirm the presence of HIV.

How accurate are HIV tests?

In Canada, third- and fourth-generation tests have a sensitivity of up to 99.9%, meaning that the test will be falsely negative, or miss a positive result, only 1 in 1,000 times

Generally, rapid testing has a sensitivity of 99.5/99.6%. This means they might miss a few more diagnoses than the lab-based tests discussed above and this is why we prefer the lab-based tests when we have access to it. 

Are some tests more accessible than others?

Unfortunately, rapid HIV tests can be challenging to access depending on your region. Luckily, new programs by some community-based organizations offer free HIV self-tests.

How & where can I obtain a test for HIV?

Laboratory testing is more easily and equitably accessed across different regions, although it may be challenging to find inclusive providers in more remote locations. Laboratory testing can be done at STI clinics and through a family doctor / walk-in clinic. Rapid tests can be harder to come by, and can sometimes be accessed through specialized STI clinics.

You can also access self-tests online through certain community-based organizations.

How much does HIV testing cost?

HIV testing should be free for all people in Canada regardless of where it is accessed. 

Who will know about my test status?

Normally, when you get an HIV test from a healthcare provider, your name will be recorded and the test result will be in your medical records. If you take a self-test, you’re the only one who will know about the result unless you choose to speak to somebody else; if your self-test is positive, we highly recommend that you speak to a healthcare provider for confirmatory testing.

Anonymous testing is also available in some parts of Canada. The best way to know about local anonymous testing is to ask your local HIV / sexual health community organization.

If you test positive for HIV, the local public health department will be notified and any of your sexual / drug use partners will be contacted so they can get tested (they will be contacted either by you or a public health official) - your information will not be disclosed by public health officials.

How long does it take to get the results back for a HIV test?

If you are taking a laboratory HIV test, results usually come within one to two weeks. For rapid tests, the results will be available within minutes, although if you test positive, a confirmatory laboratory test is required and will take one to two weeks.

Reviewed by:
Dr. Caley Shukalek

Caley is passionate about evidence-based, patient-centred care, including telemedicine that can provide high quality care from wherever a patient may choose.

He helped create Alberta's PrEP guidelines and works as a specialist in General Internal Medicine with additional training in sexual health, including HIV and sexually transmitted infections.

He holds an Masters of Public Health from Johns Hopkins University, an MD from the University of Calgary and an MSc from the University of Alberta.