Skip Navigation
Home | About CDC | Media Relations | A-Z Index | Contact Us
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention
CDC en Español 
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Sexually Transmitted Diseases  >  Treatment Guidelines  >  Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines 2006
Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines 2006

HIV Infection: Detection, Counseling, and Referral

Infection with HIV produces a spectrum of disease that progresses from a clinically latent or asymptomatic state to AIDS as a late manifestation. The pace of disease progression varies. In untreated patients, the time between infection with HIV and the development of AIDS ranges from a few months to as long as 17 years (median: 10 years). The majority of adults and adolescents infected with HIV remain symptom-free for extended periods, but viral replication is active during all stages of infection and increases substantially as the immune system deteriorates. In the absence of treatment, AIDS will develop eventually in nearly all HIV-infected persons.

Improvements in antiretroviral therapy and increasing awareness among both patients and health-care providers of the risk factors associated with HIV transmission have led to more testing for HIV and earlier diagnosis, frequently before symptoms develop. However, the conditions of nearly 40% of persons who acquire HIV infection continue to be diagnosed late, within 1 year of acquiring AIDS. Prompt diagnosis of HIV infection is essential for multiple reasons. Treatments are available that slow the decline of immune system function; use of these therapies has been associated with substantial declines in HIV-associated morbidity and mortality in recent years. HIV-infected persons who have altered immune function are at increased risk for infections for which preventive measures are available (e.g., Pneumocystis jiroveci pneumonia, toxoplasma encephalitis [TE], disseminated Mycobacterium avium complex [MAC] disease, tuberculosis [TB], and bacterial pneumonia). Because of its effect on the immune system, HIV affects the diagnosis, evaluation, treatment, and follow-up of multiple other diseases and might affect the efficacy of antimicrobial therapy for some STDs. Finally, the early diagnosis of HIV enables health-care providers to counsel infected patients, refer them to various support services, and help prevent HIV transmission to others. Acutely infected persons might have elevated HIV viral loads and, therefore, might be more likely to transmit HIV to their partners (48,49).

Proper management of HIV infection involves a complex array of behavioral, psychosocial, and medical services. Although some services might not be available in STD treatment facilities. Therefore, referral to a health-care provider or facility experienced in caring for HIV-infected patients is advised. Providers working in STD-treatment facilities should be knowledgeable about the options for referral available in their communities. While receiving care in STD-treatment facilities, HIV-infected patients should be educated about HIV infection and the various options available for support services and HIV care.

A detailed discussion of the multiple, complex services required for management of HIV infection is beyond the scope of this section; however, this information is available in other published resources (6,9,50,51). In subsequent sections, this report provides information regarding diagnostic testing for HIV infection, counseling patients who have HIV infection, referral of patients for support services, including medical care, and the management of sex and injecting-drug partners in STD-treatment facilities. In addition, the report discusses HIV infection during pregnancy and in infants and children.

Back to Top

Detection of HIV Infection: Screening and Diagnostic Testing

All persons who seek evaluation and treatment for STDs should be screened for HIV infection. Screening should be routine, regardless of whether the patient is known or suspected to have specific behavioral risks for HIV infection.

Consent and Pretest Information

HIV screening should be voluntary and conducted only with the patient’s knowledge and understanding that testing is planned. Persons should be informed orally or in writing that HIV testing will be performed unless they decline (i.e., opt-out screening). Oral or written communications should include an explanation of positive and negative test results, and patients should be offered an opportunity to ask questions and to decline testing.

Prevention Counseling

Prevention counseling does not need to be explicitly linked to the HIV-testing process. However, some patients might be more likely to think about HIV and consider their risks when undergoing an HIV test. HIV testing might present an ideal opportunity to provide or arrange for prevention counseling to assist with behavior changes that can reduce risk for acquiring HIV infection. Prevention counseling should be offered and encouraged in all health-care facilities serving patients at high risk and in those (e.g., STD clinics) where information on HIV-risk behaviors is routinely elicited.

Diagnostic Testing

HIV infection usually is diagnosed by tests for antibodies against HIV-1. Some combination tests also detect antibodies against HIV-2 (i.e., HIV-1/2). Antibody testing begins with a sensitive screening test (e.g., the enzyme immunoassay [EIA] or rapid test). The advent of HIV rapid testing has enabled clinicians to make a substantially accurate presumptive diagnosis of HIV-1 infection within half an hour. This testing can facilitate the identification of the more than 250,000 persons living with undiagnosed HIV in the United States. Reactive screening tests must be confirmed by a supplemental test (e.g., the Western blot [WB]) or an immunofluo-rescence assay (IFA) (52). If confirmed by a supplemental test, a positive antibody test result indicates that a person is infected with HIV and is capable of transmitting the virus to others. HIV antibody is detectable in at least 95% of patients within 3 months after infection. Although a negative antibody test result usually indicates that a person is not infected, antibody tests cannot exclude recent infection.

The majority of HIV infections in the United States are caused by HIV-1. However, HIV-2 infection should be suspected in persons who have epidemiologic risk factors, including being from West Africa (where HIV-2 is endemic) or have sex partners from endemic areas, have sex partners known to be infected with HIV-2, or have received a blood transfusion or nonsterile injection in a West African country. HIV-2 testing also is indicated when clinical evidence of HIV exists but tests for HIV-1 antibodies or HIV-1 viral load are not positive, or when HIV-1 WB results include the unusual indeterminate pattern of gag (p55, p24, p17) plus pol (p66, p51, p31) bands in the absence of env (gp160, gp120, gp41) bands.

Health-care providers should be knowledgeable about the symptoms and signs of acute retroviral syndrome, which is characterized by fever, malaise, lymphadenopathy, and skin rash. This syndrome frequently occurs in the first few weeks after HIV infection, before antibody test results become positive. Suspicion of acute retroviral syndrome should prompt nucleic acid testing (HIV plasma ribonucleic acid [RNA]) to detect the presence of HIV, although not all nucleic acid tests are approved for diagnostic purposes; a positive HIV nucleic acid test should be confirmed by subsequent antibody testing to document seroconversion (using standard methods, EIA, and WB). Acutely infected patients might be highly contagious because of increased plasma and genital HIV RNA concentrations and might be continuing to engage in risky behaviors (48,49). Current guidelines suggest that persons with recently acquired HIV infection might benefit from antiretroviral drugs and be candidates for clinical trials (53,54). Therefore, patients with acute HIV infection should be referred immediately to an HIV clinical care provider.

Diagnosis of HIV infection should prompt efforts to reduce the risk behavior that resulted in HIV infection and could result in transmission of HIV to others (55). Early counseling and education are particularly important for persons with recently acquired infection because HIV plasma RNA levels are characteristically high during this phase of infection and probably constitute an increased risk for HIV transmission. The following are specific recommendations for diagnostic testing for HIV infection:

  • HIV screening is recommended for all persons who seek evaluation and treatment for STDs.
  • HIV testing must be voluntary.
  • Consent for HIV testing should be incorporated into the general consent for care (verbally or in writing) with an opportunity to decline (opt-out screening).
  • HIV rapid testing must be considered, especially in clinics where a high proportion of patients do not return for HIV test results.
  • Positive screening tests for HIV antibody must be confirmed by a supplemental test (e.g., WB or IFA) before being considered diagnostic of HIV infection.
  • Persons who have positive HIV test results (screening and confirmatory) must receive initial HIV prevention counseling before leaving the testing site. Such persons should 1) receive a medical evaluation and, if indicated, behavioral and psychological services, or 2) be referred for these services.
  • Providers should be alert to the possibility of acute retroviral syndrome and should perform nucleic acid testing for HIV, if indicated. Patients suspected of having recently acquired HIV infection should be referred for immediate consultation with a specialist.

Back to Top

Counseling for Patients with HIV Infection and Referral to Support Services

Persons can be expected to be distressed when first informed of a positive HIV test result. Such persons face multiple major adaptive challenges, including 1) accepting the possibility of a shortened life span, 2) coping with the reactions of others to a stigmatizing illness, 3) developing and adopting strategies for maintaining physical and emotional health, and 4) initiating changes in behavior to prevent HIV transmission to others. Many persons will require assistance with making reproductive choices, gaining access to health services, confronting possible employment or housing discrimination, and coping with changes in personal relationships. Therefore, behavioral and psychosocial services are an integral part of health care for HIV-infected persons. Such services should be available on site or through referral when HIV infection is diagnosed. A comprehensive discussion of specific recommendations is available in the Guidelines for HIV Counseling, Testing, and Referral and Revised Recommendations for HIV Screening of Pregnant Women (6). Innovative and successful interventions to decrease risk taking by HIV-infected patients have been developed for diverse populations (12).

Practice settings for offering HIV care differ depending on local resources and needs. Primary care providers and outpatient facilities should ensure that appropriate resources are available for each patient to avoid fragmentation of care. Although a single source that is capable of providing comprehensive care for all stages of HIV infection is preferred, the limited availability of such resources frequently results in the need to coordinate care among medical and social service providers in different locations. Providers should avoid long delays between diagnosis of HIV infection and access to additional medical and psychosocial services. The use of HIV rapid testing can help avoid unnecessary delays.

Recently identified HIV infection might not have been recently acquired. Persons newly diagnosed with HIV might be at any stage of infection. Therefore, health-care providers should be alert for symptoms or signs that suggest advanced HIV infection (e.g., fever, weight loss, diarrhea, cough, shortness of breath, and oral candidiasis). The presence of any of these symptoms should prompt urgent referral for specialty medical care. Similarly, providers should be alert for signs of psychologic distress and be prepared to refer patients accordingly.

Diagnosis of HIV infection reinforces the need to counsel patients regarding high-risk behaviors because the consequences of such behaviors include the risk for acquiring additional STDs and for transmitting HIV (and other STDs) to other persons. Such attention to behaviors in HIV-infected persons is consistent with national strategies for HIV prevention (55). Providers should refer patients for prevention counseling and risk-reduction support concerning high-risk behaviors (e.g., substance abuse and high-risk sexual behaviors). In multiple recent studies, researchers have developed successful prevention interventions for different HIV-infected populations that can be adapted to individuals (56,57).

Persons with newly diagnosed HIV infection who receive care in the STD treatment setting should be educated concerning what to expect as they enter medical care for HIV infection (51). In nonemergent situations, the initial evaluation of HIV-positive patients usually includes the following:

  • a detailed medical history, including sexual and substance abuse history; vaccination history; previous STDs; and specific HIV-related symptoms or diagnoses;
  • a physical examination, including a gynecologic examination for women;
  • testing for N. gonorrhoeae and C. trachomatis (and for women, a Pap test and wet mount examination of vaginal secretions);
  • complete blood and platelet counts and blood chemistry profile;
  • toxoplasma antibody test;
  • tests for antibodies to HCV; testing for previous or present HAV or HBV infection is recommended if determined to be cost-effective before considering vaccination (see Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B);
  • syphilis serology;
  • a CD4 T-lymphocyte analysis and determination of HIV plasma viral load;
  • a tuberculin skin test (sometimes referred to as a purified protein derivative);
  • a urinalysis; and
  • a chest radiograph.

Some specialists recommend type-specific testing for HSV-2 if herpes infection status is unknown. A first dose of hepatitis A and/or hepatitis B vaccination for previously unvaccinated persons for whom vaccine is recommended (see Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B) should be administered at this first visit.

In subsequent visits, when the results of laboratory and skin tests are available, antiretroviral therapy may be offered, if indicated, after initial antiretroviral resistance testing is performed (53) and specific prophylactic medications are administered to reduce the incidence of opportunistic infections (e.g., Pneumocystis jiroveci pneumonia, TE, disseminated MAC infection, and TB) (50). The vaccination series for hepatitis A and/or B should be offered for those in whom vaccination is recommended. Influenza vaccination should be offered annually, and pneumococcal vaccination should be given if it has not been administered in the previous 5 years (50,51).

Providers should be alert to the possibility of new or recurrent STDs and should treat such conditions aggressively. The occurrence of an STD in an HIV-infected person is an indication of high-risk behavior and should prompt referral for counseling. Because many STDs are asymptomatic, routine screening for curable STDs (e.g., syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia) should be performed at least yearly for sexually active persons. Women should be screened for cervical cancer precursor lesions by annual Pap smears. More frequent STD screening might be appropriate depending on individual risk behaviors, the local epidemiology of STDs, and whether incident STDs are detected by screening or by the presence of symptoms.

Newly diagnosed HIV-infected persons should receive or be referred for a thorough psychosocial evaluation, including ascertainment of behavioral factors indicating risk for transmitting HIV. Patients might require referral for specific behavioral intervention (e.g., a substance abuse program), mental health disorders (e.g., depression), or emotional distress. They might require assistance with securing and maintaining employment and housing. Women should be counseled or appropriately referred regarding reproductive choices and contraceptive options. Patients with multiple psychosocial problems might be candidates for comprehensive risk-reduction counseling and services (8).

The following are specific recommendations for HIV counseling and referral:

  • Persons who test positive for HIV antibody should be counseled, either on site or through referral, concerning the behavioral, psychosocial, and medical implications of HIV infection.
  • Health-care providers should be alert for medical or psychosocial conditions that require immediate attention.
  • Providers should assess newly diagnosed persons need for immediate medical care or support and link them to services in which health-care personnel are experienced in providing care for HIV-infected persons. Such persons might need medical care or services for substance abuse, mental health disorders, emotional distress, reproductive counseling, risk-reduction counseling, and case management. Providers should follow-up to ensure that patients have received the needed services.
  • Patients should be educated regarding what to expect in follow-up medical care.

Several innovative interventions for HIV prevention have been developed for diverse at-risk populations, and these can be locally replicated or adapted (11,12). Involvement of non-government organizations and community-based organizations might complement such efforts in the clinical setting.

Management of Sex Partners and Injecting-Drug Partners

Clinicians evaluating HIV-infected persons should collect information to determine whether any partners should be notified concerning possible exposure to HIV (6). When referring to persons who are infected with HIV, the term “partner” includes not only sex partners but also IDUs who share syringes or other injection equipment. The rationale for partner notification is that the early diagnosis and treatment of HIV infection in these partners might reduce morbidity and provides the opportunity to encourage risk-reducing behaviors. Partner notification for HIV infection should be confidential and depends on the voluntary cooperation of the patient. Specific guidance regarding spousal notification may vary by jurisdiction.

Two complementary notification processes, patient referral and provider referral, can be used to identify partners. With patient referral, patients directly inform their partners of their exposure to HIV infection. With provider referral, trained health department personnel locate partners on the basis of the names, descriptions, and addresses provided by the patient. During the notification process, the confidentiality of patients is protected; their names are not revealed to partners who are notified. Many state and local health departments provide these services.

The following are specific recommendations for implementing partner-notification procedures:

  • HIV-infected patients should be encouraged to notify their partners and to refer them for counseling and testing. If requested by the patient, health-care providers should assist in this process, either directly or by referral to health department partner-notification programs.
  • If patients are unwilling to notify their partners or if they cannot ensure that their partners will seek counseling, physicians or health department personnel should use confidential partner notification procedures.
  • Partners who are contacted within 72 hours of a high-risk sexual or injecting-drug exposure to an HIV-infected partner, which involves exposure to genital secretions and/ or blood, should be offered PEP with combination antiretroviral therapy to complete a 28-day course (58).

Special Considerations

Pregnancy. All pregnant women in the United States should be tested for HIV infection as early during pregnancy as possible. Testing should occur after the patient is notified that she will be tested for HIV as part of the routine panel of prenatal tests, unless she declines (i.e., opt-out screening) (30– 32). For women who decline, providers should continue to strongly encourage testing and address concerns that pose obstacles to testing. Women who decline testing because they have had a previous negative HIV test should be informed of the importance of retesting during each pregnancy. Testing pregnant women is particularly important, not only to maintain the health of the patient, but also because interventions (i.e., antiretroviral and obstetrical) can reduce the risk of perinatal transmission of HIV.

After pregnant women have been identified as being HIV-infected, they should be educated about the risk of perinatal infection. Evidence indicates that, in the absence of antiretroviral and other interventions, 15%–25% of infants born to HIV-infected mothers will become infected with HIV; such evidence also indicates that an additional 12%–14% will become infected during breastfeeding where HIV-infected women breastfeed their infants into the second year of life (59,60).

The risk of perinatal HIV transmission can be reduced substantially to <2% through the use of antiretroviral regimens and obstetrical interventions (i.e., zidovudine or nevirapine and elective cesarean section at 38 weeks of pregnancy) and by avoiding breastfeeding (61). Pregnant women who are HIV infected should be counseled concerning their options (either on-site or by referral), given appropriate antenatal treatment, and advised not to breastfeed their infants (for women living in the United States, where infant formula is readily available and can be safely prepared).

HIV Infection Among Infants and Children. Diagnosis of HIV infection in a pregnant woman indicates the need to consider whether other children of the woman might be infected. Infants and young children with HIV infection differ from adults and adolescents with respect to the diagnosis, clinical presentation, and management of HIV disease. For example, because maternal HIV antibody passes through the placenta, antibody tests for HIV are expected to be positive in the sera of both infected and uninfected infants born to seropositive mothers. A definitive determination of HIV infection for an infant aged <18 months is usually based on HIV nucleic acid testing. Management of infants, children, and adolescents who are known or suspected to be infected with HIV requires referral to physicians familiar with the manifestations and treatment of pediatric HIV infection (50,51,62).

Back to Top