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FAQs

HIV Lab Test

What is an HIV lab test?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a viral infection that damages your body’s immune system. HIV is transmitted through sexual contact or contact with infected blood. Pregnant women may pass this disease to their unborn child, or through breastfeeding. HIV is the early stage of the infection that may progress to become AIDS. If left untreated, HIV usually develops into AIDS within 8-10 months - once the virus has severely damaged the immune system.

HIV/ AIDS dramatically affects your body’s ability to fight infection. Individuals managing AIDS may become fatally ill from a disease that causes mild symptoms in healthy individuals.

Deaths caused by HIV/ AIDS have decreased in the last 10-20 years, however, the disease is still deadly if left untreated. Early detection can help you and your doctor slow the progression of the illness through medication.

No HIV test can detect HIV immediately after exposure. The tests used to diagnose HIV are usually employed within 10-90 days after infection. If you believe you may have been exposed to HIV in the last 72 hours, contact your doctor to schedule a post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) appointment. PEP involves taking medication for 28 days after possible exposure to prevent HIV.

You may elect to undergo PEP if:
- You had unprotected sex with someone who may be infected, or if the condom broke during sex
- If you have shared needles, syringes, or injection equipment (most common in narcotic drug users)
- You have been sexually assaulted


If you are worried that you may have been exposed to HIV, talk to your doctor about scheduling a test to diagnose the disease. Specific instructions for timing and preparation will be given depending on your symptoms, and the timing of your exposure.

What are the different types of HIV tests?

HIV is commonly diagnosed through blood or saliva testing. If you suspect that you may have been exposed to HIV, but receive a negative test result, it is recommended that you receive a second test several days or weeks after your first test. HIV is sometimes indetectable depending on the test and the timing window after your exposure.

Before undergoing HIV testing, tell your doctor when you think you may have been exposed. This can help them determine the appropriate test for you.

The most common types of HIV tests are:

- Antigen/ antibody test: Antibody tests examine blood or saliva for specific protein cells that are produced as a reaction to viruses or bacteria. It may take several weeks for your body to produce these antibodies, so this test is most accurate 2-6 weeks after infection. Blood drawn from a vein may produce results more quickly (18-45 days after exposure) than blood drawn from a finger prick (18-90 days after exposure).

- Antibody test: This test is most accurate 3-12 weeks after exposure. Like an antigen/ antibody test, this procedure tests the blood or saliva for the presence of specific antibodies to detect infection. Antibody tests may be performed at a primary care clinic, or at home. At-home testing may take longer to produce results as you will be required to ship the blood or saliva sample you collect at home.

- Nucleic acid test: A nucleic acid test uses blood drawn from a vein to detect the presence of the virus in the blood - unlike the tests detailed above which check for antibodies. A nucleic acid test can usually detect HIV within 10-30 days after exposure, earlier than the antibody and antigen tests above.

Before scheduling an HIV test, talk to your doctor about when you think you may have been exposed to the HIV virus. This can help them determine which type of test is right for you.

How do I prepare for an HIV test?

No specific preparation is needed for an HIV test. If you are taking an HIV test at home, talk to your doctor about how to ship your sample, as well as how to properly perform the sample collecting.

What happens during an HIV test?

HIV tests require either a blood or saliva sample.

In most cases, a blood test will be used at a primary care clinic. For this, a small needle will be inserted into your arm. You may feel a slight pinch or sting as the needle enters the skin, but this pain should subside within a few seconds. Blood will be drawn from a vein in your arm and deposited into a small test tube.

After the appropriate amount of blood has been taken from the vein, the needle will be removed from your arm, the puncture site cleaned, and the area bandaged. The test tube will then be given to the laboratory for testing.

This procedure usually takes about 5-10 minutes. In most cases, you will be cleared to leave the clinic after the test has been performed.

What if I receive a negative result?

It may take some time for an HIV test to detect the presence of the virus. Just because you have received a negative result from your first test does not mean that you do not have HIV. It is recommended that you receive a second test after the window period of your first test to confirm whether or not you have been infected. The window period is the timeframe when a test can accurately detect the presence of the HIV virus. For instance, the window period for a nucleic acid test is 10-30 days. If you receive a negative result from this test, it is recommended that you receive a second test after that 30 day period.

If you have taken a second test after the window period of your first test and have received negative results, it is likely that you do not have HIV. During this time, you should abstain from unprotected sexual contact or sharing needles and syringes. This can reduce your risk of contracting or spreading the virus while you are waiting for your diagnosis.

What if I receive a positive result?

If you have received a positive result from your test, your doctor may order a second test to definitively confirm that you have been infected with the HIV virus. These tests include:

- Viral load test: Also known as an HIV RNA test, this test measures the levels of the virus in your blood. This test can help determine how long you have been infected and monitors the efficacy of early-stage HIV treatment.

- CD4 T Cell Count: CD4 T Cells attack the HIV virus in the blood. When the count of these white blood cells drops below 200, the HIV virus has begun to develop into AIDS.

If you have been diagnosed with HIV, or suspect you may have been exposed to the virus, it is important that you inform your recent sexual partners so that they can begin treatment too. Even if your partner exhibits no signs or symptoms, it is very likely that they have also been infected, and require treatment. While these can be uncomfortable conversations to have, keeping your sexual partners informed can help them detect the disease early and treat the condition with maximum efficacy.