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I’ve had 3 sex partners. Do I need an AIDS test?

If you are sexually active and don’t get tested for AIDS, says Dr. Judith Reichman, you delay potentially life-saving treatments.

Q: I’m 26 and have had three sexual partners. I’m about to get a checkup. Should I get an AIDS test?

A: Yes, you should — both for the sake of your own health and that of your future partners.

You don’t want to become part of an alarming statistic: Of the 850,000 to 950,000 Americans living with HIV today, a quarter don’t know they are infected.

This lack of knowledge means that these people are not getting the anti-retroviral medication that can improve and prolong their lives, and that they are unwittingly capable of infecting their sexual partners (or needle-sharing partners).

For some time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been telling “ordinary” doctors — those who are not infectious-disease specialists — that AIDS testing should be a routine part of patient care.

Despite the public warning and what should be everyone’s private concern, fewer than half of American adults between 18 and 64 have ever been tested, and only 20 percent have been tested within the past 12 months.

The new anti-retroviral therapies let infected individuals live successfully with HIV for about two decades and perhaps even achieve a normal lifespan. But people must start their therapy at the onset of infection. A delay can diminish the effectiveness of the medication and hasten the progress of AIDS.

Without treatment, the typical time between infection and the appearance of symptoms is 10 years. So if you wait for symptoms, you could be losing a decade of crucial therapy.

You haven’t said whether you’ve engaged in non-sexual risky behavior in the past — injecting drugs, getting a tattoo in a foreign country, or having a blood transfusion before 1985.

But even if you did not, those three sexual partners constituted three sources of possible HIV infection, multiplied by their partners (if they were not tested or were not monogamous). While barrier contraception is the best way to protect women from infection during sexual activity, it is not a guarantee. Condoms can break, leak or slip off, and there are other ways to exchange infected bodily fluids, such as sharing a razor or a toothbrush.

HIV testing is now routinely offered to all pregnant women, but it’s unwise to wait until pregnancy for a diagnosis.

Walking into a doctor’s office and requesting an AIDS test causes consternation for many women. In today’s world, though, it isn’t wise to wait for the doctor to suggest it. Your anonymity will be protected — remember, you determine who has access to your records.

You can also go to one of many anonymous testing centers, which you can look up on the Centers for Disease Control Website (www.cdc.gov). And if the thought of waiting days or weeks to get the results makes you crazy, request the OraQuick Rapid HIV-1 Antibody Test, a fast-result test that uses a finger prick or a swab that collects saliva. You get preliminary results within 20 minutes, though final confirmation of a positive result requires further testing.

You certainly don’t want to spread the HIV infection to others, so if you ever expect to have a fourth sexual partner, it’s yet another reason you should be tested. Another bonus: You can say, “I had my test, so show me yours.”

Dr. Reichman’s Bottom Line: HIV infection is no longer a mandatory death sentence. In order to get treatment as early as possible — and as a duty to those you love (and/or will love) — you should definitely be tested.

Dr. Judith Reichman, the “Today” show's medical contributor on women's health, has practiced obstetrics and gynecology for more than 20 years. You will find many answers to your questions in her latest book, "Slow Your Clock Down: The Complete Guide to a Healthy, Younger You," published by William Morrow, a division of .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.