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HIV Viral Load

Does this test have other names?

Viral load test, RNA tests

What is this test?

This is a blood test to measure the amount of HIV in your blood. HIV causes AIDS. This test should be done two to eight weeks after you're diagnosed with HIV and then every three to four months during long-term therapy. If your treatment is effective, your viral load should go down in four to six months.

Although HIV antibody testing is widely used to detect HIV, viral load testing can also diagnose the infection. Because the viral load test measures genes and chemical compounds found in HIV, it can find the virus in your blood within days of infection.

HIV antibody testing, however, may give a negative result until the virus has been in your body for two to six months. You may not show signs of HIV even if the virus is already multiplying in your blood. Because HIV has no cure, it's important to find out as soon as possible whether you have the virus so treatment can be started.

If you're taking drugs to lower levels of the virus in your body, this test shows whether the drugs are working. The more your viral load goes down, the healthier you are likely to be. 

Why do I need this test?

You may need this test if you've had unprotected sex or shared needles and want to know whether you've contracted HIV. Standard antibody tests aren't as accurate as the viral load test because they can take up to six months to show that you have HIV. In that time it's possible to infect someone else.

If you're pregnant, it's especially important to find out whether you have HIV. Starting treatment right away can lower the risk of passing the virus on to your baby.

It's also likely that you will have this test if you've already been diagnosed with HIV. You may have the first test two to eight weeks after diagnosis and again at four- to six-month intervals. The findings help doctors determine the best drug treatment to get your viral load down and keep you healthy. 

What other tests might I have along with this test?

You may also have a CD4 test, which measures the strength of your immune system.

What do my test results mean?

Many things may affect your lab test results. These include the method each lab uses to do the test. Even if your test results are different from the normal value, you may not have a problem. To learn what the results mean for you, talk with your health care provider.

Your test result is a number that shows how many copies of HIV exist in one milliliter of your blood. A normal count is a virus level so low it can't be detected.

Low counts mean the virus is not highly active and your treatment is working. The higher the number, the more likely you are to become ill or show signs of immunity problems linked to AIDS.

Medical guidelines state that if even if you don't have symptoms, you should be treated if your count is above 100,000 copies per milliliter.

Ideally your viral load should drop to about 50 copies per milliliter within one year of long-term drug treatment. 

How is this test done?

The test requires a blood sample, which is drawn through a needle from a vein in your arm.

Does this test pose any risks?

Taking a blood sample with a needle carries risks that include bleeding, infection, bruising, or feeling dizzy. When the needle pricks your arm, you may feel a slight stinging sensation or pain. Afterward, the site may be slightly sore. 

What might affect my test results?

The results can be skewed if you've recently had an immunization, such as a flu shot, or if you have an active infection. Experts recommend that you not have this test within four weeks of an infection or vaccination.

How do I get ready for this test?

You don't need to prepare for this test. If you're having this test to find out your HIV status, make sure you get counseling before or after the test. Be sure your doctor knows about all medicines, herbs, vitamins, and supplements you are taking. This includes medicines that don't need a prescription and any illicit drugs you may use.