Probably the most common question we are asked at BioSure, especially at the events we have recently supported, is ‘I know about home testing, but what is the difference between HIV home sampling and HIV self testing?’
Unlike the traditional methods of HIV testing (where you go somewhere and someone tests you), in the UK there are two options available for testing yourself for HIV.
- HIV Home Sampling: when you are posted a kit (generally lancets, collection tubes, instructions and an envelope), collect your own sample (usually blood) and then post your sample off to a laboratory for analysis. You then wait until the lab have tested your sample and you are contacted with your result by phone or email.
- HIV Self Testing: when you are posted a kit (a lancet, HIV self testing device and instructions) and perform the whole test yourself with a tiny sample of your own blood. After a few minutes, you read and interpret your own test result.
With both these options you don’t need to see a doctor or nurse and you can use these kits wherever you want, including at home. For that reason, both approaches are often referred to as ‘home testing’. However, they are very different ways of testing and both have their advantages and disadvantages.
A number of sexual health clinics and charities offer free home sampling services to certain groups of people. These include the Terrence Higgins Trust, 56 Dean Street and the HIV Test UK You can also buy online from a number of websites - such as Freedoms Shop – at a cost of about £40. HIV home sampling has always been legal in the United Kingdom.
There are some differences but generally the services work as follows:
- You order a home sampling kit from a website. If it’s a free service you will probably be asked some questions to check if you are eligible.
- The kit is sent to your home in the post.
- You collect your own sample - you’re advised to wash or soak your hands in warm water to increase blood flow and are usually given a number of safety lancets to make a small cut(s) in your finger(s) so that you can produce enough blood to fill the collection tube (up to 2.5 ml, i.e. about half a teaspoon).
- You post your sample to a laboratory where a test is performed. These tests can usually detect if you have HIV from about 28 days after exposure.
- Someone will then contact you with your results.
- If the result is negative you will usually receive a text message
- If the result is positive it is usually through a phone call and the person calling will be able to advise you as to where to access a confirmatory test, advice, support and treatment.
Self-testing is a very different proposition. You perform the whole test yourself and get the results pretty much there and then. Again this has advantages and disadvantages.
It used to be illegal to sell or advertise HIV self-testing kits in the UK – HIV testing equipment could only be sold to medical professionals. These restrictions were lifted in April 2014 for tests that could prove that they met the European requirements for performance and safety. At present, the only test available that is CE marked for self testing is the BioSURE HIV Self Test.
The BioSURE HIV Self Test works as follows:
- You order your HIV self testing kit from our website
- The kit is discretely sent to your home in the post
- Using a safety lancet you make a tiny cut on one of your fingers, producing a tiny drop of blood (approx. 2.5µL, i.e. 1,000th of the sample required for Home Sampling)
- You touch the tip of the HIV self testing device onto the drop of blood and it automatically draws up the right amount.
- You put the tip of the device into a pot of solution and leave it to stand up
- After 15 minutes you read your own test result, there and then.
- If your result is negative you will know within minutes of performing your test
- If your result is positive you will need to find a clinic where they can perform a confirmatory test and from there have access to advice, support and treatment.
- This is why we highly recommend thinking in advance about how you may feel about your result and possibly speaking with a friend or even having them present while you do the test. Of course, for a lot of people they do prefer to be on their own, but that is your own choice.
Unfortunately there are still some unregulated self-testing kits that continue to be available illegally from internet retailers. They even say the kits are CE marked, but this is for ‘Professional Use Only’. These kits do not meet European standards for HIV self testing. They have been designed for use only by experienced medical professionals who have been trained how to use the test and they can be very difficult for untrained people to use correctly.