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My experience of taking a postal HIV test kit

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CN: blood, HIV, sexual assault (single mention in ‘day 1’ eligibility questions)

Day 1 – Ordering the test

I just ordered my test via freetesting.hiv/. You can read all about the test kit and associated timeline at freetesting.hiv/whats-in-the-kit, but if you’d like to hear a personal experience of using the service, read on.

Firstly, I had to enter information to check that I’m eligible, including my date of birth, postcode, gender*, gender assigned at birth, gender of sexual partners, sexual orientation, and date of last HIV test. There are also some questions about your sexual history, including whether you’ve had sex without a condom in the last year, whether you’ve had unprotected sex in the last 5 days (in which case it gives you information about PEP & emergency contraception), whether you’ve been sexually assaulted, whether you’ve ever paid for/been paid for sex, and how often you take drugs before or during sex.

I think it’s easy to feel a bit defensive about providing the information they’re asking for, but of course there’s no judgement here, it’s just to assess your eligibility for testing and to signpost you to any additional support you might need.

Then you simply fill in your name, email address, phone number, and address so that they can post you the kit and keep in touch with you about your test.

It finishes by telling you that the kit will be posted 1st class in discreet packaging, and that they’ll text when your kit is dispatched, when the samples arrive back at the lab, and when your results are back.

*There was a ‘Genderqueer/Non-Binary’ option, FYI

Day 2 – Test kit dispatched

I got confirmation that my test kit has been dispatched today via Royal Mail 1st class post. Due to delays caused by the global pandemic it might take a week or more before it’s received, they’ve advised.

Day 3 – Ongoing communication

freetesting.hiv/ keep in touch by text with some useful information whilst you wait for your test kit to arrive, such as when the best time to test might be, and signposting to a video of how to take the when it arrives.

A friend also shared the tip that collecting blood from a finger prick test is easiest just after you’ve had a shower as your hands will be warmer.

Day 4 – Receiving the test kit

Despite their repeated apologies for potential delays during the pandemic, my test kit arrived in the post this morning! It came in a plain grey plastic envelope, and there was no indication as to its contents from the outside (in case you’re worried someone else might pick it up out of the post).

Day 5 – Taking the test

When you open the envelope a couple of things tumble out: the return envelope, the lab card (which explains the details which test you’re taking and has all the info the lab needs), and a plastic wallet containing the test kit itself. The test kit includes instructions, the sample tube and its protective case, two alcohol wipes, two small plasters, and three lancets.

The instructions themselves suggest taking a shower/bath, soaking your hands in warm water, or exercising to help with taking your blood sample. The process of which is actually pretty simple, despite the 6 step instructions available. You set up the tube so it’s standing without being in danger of falling over, wipe your finger (with the provided wipe), and then prick it. I’ll linger on this bit, because I imagine it’s the bit that puts some people off taking the test, and why a lot of test kits don’t get returned.

The lancets have a little twist cap, which when removed leaves you with this:

Put the finger you want to prick (fingertip or side) on the table, and then just push the tip of the lancet onto the part you want to prick. It pushes a little way, and then the spring inside releases and it gives you a little jab. You don’t ever see the pointy bit, you don’t really know when it’s coming, and it lasts a fraction of a second (it retracts itself automatically).

I’d suggest you pick quite a low surface to do this on, like a chair or a coffee table, as you’re supposed to keep your arm straight with your hand below your waist while you collect the blood sample. You have to fill the sample tube up to the upper line, massaging your finger to keep the drops forming (which for me at least was quite slow). It suggests pricking a second finger if the drops stop forming, but I was able to complete it with just the first one.

Then all that’s left is to cap the tube, tip it upside down half a dozen times to allow the preservative gel in the vial to prevent the sample clotting, and seal the tube into the protective case. Pop that and the lab card into the return envelope, and seal! I’d suggest having a damp tissue or wipe ready nearby to clean your finger(s) off, and if you’re not good with the sight of small amounts of blood, maybe someone else to help you collect the sample.

Day 6 – Posting the test back

You just drop the return envelope into any Royal Mail post box – it’s already addressed and there’s no postage costs. One thing: it’s bright yellow with a biological substance warning on the front, so if you’re worried about other people seeing it you can pop it into a bag when you take it to the post box.

Day 10 – Sample reaching the lab

I got a text to say that my test kit has been received and will be processed within 72 hours. They’ll then send my results by text message. They advise to change your phone’s notification settings if your texts appear on your lock screen and you’re worried about someone seeing.

Day 12 – Receiving the results

I received my test result by text today – it came back negative. Had it been ‘reactive’, the term they use to indicate that the test has reacted to something in your blood which could be (but is not necessarily) HIV, they would have called to offer support and discuss the next testing steps.

If you have a negative result, you’re advised to test at least once a year, and if at any point you believe that you may have been exposed to the virus you should test at that point and 12 weeks later.

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