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Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Test

Test Overview

An HIV test detects HIV antibodies or antigens or the genetic material (RNA or DNA) of HIV in the blood or another type of sample. This can show if an HIV infection is present (HIV-positive). HIV infects certain white blood cells. They are part of the body's immune system that help fight infections.

Most doctors use a blood test to screen for HIV infection. If the test is positive (meaning that HIV antibodies or antigens are found), a test to detect HIV RNA or DNA will be done to be sure. Sometimes an RNA or DNA test is done at the same time as the first test.

If you think you were recently exposed to HIV, tell your doctor. You may need an RNA or DNA test. Or you may need to be tested again. This is done to make sure that HIV RNA, DNA, antibodies, or antigens don't appear at a later time.

Home tests are available. Follow the instructions carefully. If the result is positive, talk to a doctor as soon as you can.

Why It Is Done

An HIV test is done to:

  • Detect an HIV infection.
  • Screen blood, blood products, and organ donors to prevent the spread of HIV.
  • Screen people who are pregnant for HIV infection. If you're pregnant and have HIV, getting treated early can prevent your baby from being born with HIV.
  • Find out if a baby born to someone who has HIV is infected with HIV.

This test is not done to find out if a person has AIDS. A diagnosis of AIDS means that a person is HIV-positive and other problems are present.

How To Prepare

In general, there's nothing you have to do before this test, unless your doctor tells you to.

How It Is Done

A health professional uses a needle to take a blood sample, usually from the arm.

Watch

How It Feels

When a blood sample is taken, you may feel nothing at all from the needle. Or you might feel a quick sting or pinch.

Risks

There is very little chance of having a problem from this test. When a blood sample is taken, a small bruise may form at the site.

Results

Normal result

  • A normal result means that no HIV antibodies or antigens were found in your blood. And if you had a test that checked for HIV RNA or DNA, none was found. Normal results are called negative.
  • You may need more testing to be sure the test results are correct.

Uncertain result

  • Test results don't clearly show whether you have an HIV infection. This is usually called an indeterminate result. This may happen before HIV antibodies or antigens develop. Or it may happen when some other type of antibody or antigen interferes with the results. If this occurs, you will probably have another test right away.

Abnormal result

  • An abnormal result means that you have HIV antibodies or antigens in your blood. These results are called positive.
  • A positive test will be confirmed by another type of test. This is because some tests can cause false-positive results. No one is considered HIV-positive until the result is confirmed by a test that shows HIV RNA or DNA in the person's blood.
  • If your test result is positive, your doctor will talk to you about starting treatment.

Credits

Current as of: October 31, 2022

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Peter Shalit MD, PhD - Internal Medicine

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