How does a HIV test work? Here’s what you need to know about taking a HIV test

hiv-test

*How does a HIV test work?**HIV causes AIDS and interferes with the body’s ability to fight infections. Today, we talk you through everything you need to know about HIV tests and how they work. *

How does a HIV test work?

HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system. HIV causes a condition called AIDs (acquired immunodeficiency virus) if it is not treated.

Currently, there are three types of HIV tests available for detecting the presence of HIV, also known as the human immunodeficiency virus. 

There are three types of tests available which include, antigen/antibody tests, antibody tests and nucleic acid tests (NAT). 

The sample needed for a HIV test is usually blood or oral fluid. HIV tests can also be performed using urine as a sample. 

Antigen/Antibody HIV Tests

Sample required: Blood, drawn from the vein or via finger prick. 

An antigen/antibody test analyzes the blood for HIV antibodies and antigens. Let’s break down the definitions of antibodies and antigens to make this as easy to understand as possible. 

Antibodies: a blood protein produced in response to and counteracting a specific antigen. Antibodies combine chemically with substances which the body recognizes as alien, such as bacteria, viruses, and foreign substances in the blood.

Antigen: is any substance that causes your immune system to produce antibodies against it. An antigen may be a substance from the environment, such as chemicals, bacteria, viruses, or pollen.

When the body is exposed to viruses, such as HIV, your immune system will produce antibodies, in response to the antigens that have been activated by the virus. 

If you have HIV, an antigen called p24 is produced even before antibodies develop. An antigen/antibody test will be able to identify the antibody/antigen response. This type of HIV test is common in the United States. 

Antibody HIV Tests 

Sample required: Blood, drawn from the vein or via finger prick. 

Antibody tests look for antibodies in the blood. Antibody tests that use a blood sample taken from the vein will provide faster results than a finger prick or rapid test. 

Nucleic Acid Tests (NAT)

Sample required: Blood drawn from the vein 

A NAT can tell whether a person has HIV, as well as their viral load (how much virus is present in the blood). A NAT is the fastest test for detecting HIV in the blood, however it is also the most expensive. A NAT is not a routine screening test for individuals unless they are experiencing symptoms or they have been put at high risk for exposure to the virus. 

types-of-hiv-tests

What is usually the first sign of HIV? 

Flu-like symptoms are usually the first sign of HIV. Within 2-4 weeks, 2 in 3 people will experience flu-like symptoms. 

Of course, it is important to remember that there are a variety of signs and symptoms of HIV that a person may experience. The signs and symptoms will depend on which stage of the disease the person is currently in. The stages of HIV include: 

  1. Acute HIV infection
  2. Clinical latency 
  3. AIDs 

Acute HIV infection

As mentioned, the first signs and symptoms of HIV infection mimic or feel like flu-like symptoms. Early symptoms can last just a few days or progress over a number of weeks. Some people will be asymptomatic, meaning that they don’t showcase any symptoms at all. 

If symptoms do occur, some of the most common symptoms include: 

  • A sore throat
  • Feeling tired all of the time
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Unexplained mouth ulcers
  • Fever or increased body temperature
  • Chills or a cold sweat
  • An unexplained rash
  • Night sweats
  • Muscle aches and pains 

If these symptoms sound familiar, do not feel worried right away. If you feel that you have been exposed to HIV, however, it is important to get tested as soon as possible. 

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Can you test for HIV from home? 

It is possible to test for HIV from home or a private location using at home HIV tests. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “The availability of HIV self-tests in the US may help increase awareness of HIV infection for people who wouldn’t otherwise get an HIV test.”

Currently, the only FDA approved rapid at home HIV test is the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test. 

This test was approved by the FDA in 2012 for sale in stores and online to anyone age 17 and older.

The kit does not require sending a sample to a lab. It tests fluid from the mouth and delivers results in 20 to 40 minutes.

There are also a number of antibody/antigen and antibody at home HIV tests on the market that can be easily accessed online. 

Home HIV test providers 

You can get an at home HIV test from the following providers:

For a STD test price comparison, visit our latest article where we compare the market so you can get the most cost effective option.

What are the risk factors for HIV? 

Some of the greatest risk factors for HIV according to the World Health Organization are: 

  • having unprotected anal or vaginal sex;
  • having another sexually transmitted infection (STI) such as syphilis, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhoea and bacterial vaginosis;
  • sharing contaminated needles, syringes and other injecting equipment and drug solutions when injecting drugs;
  • receiving unsafe injections, blood transfusions and tissue transplantation, and medical procedures that involve unsterile cutting or piercing; and
  • experiencing accidental needle stick injuries, including among health workers

risk-factors-for-hiv

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common ways of getting HIV in the United States is by having sex or sharing syringes and other injection equipment with someone who is infected with HIV. 

FAQs

Can you test yourself for HIV? 

Yes. There are two types of HIV test that you can take yourself including: 

  • A mail-in HIV test in which you collect a sample and mail it back to the lab. 
  • A rapid HIV test in which you take an oral fluid sample and get results instantly. It’s important to ensure that any rapid health tests you are taking are FDA approved. 

How long does it take for HIV to appear on a test?

It depends on the type of test you take: 

  • Antigen/Antibody Test: 18 to 45 days after exposure. 
  • Antibody Test: 23 to 90 days after exposure. 
  • Nucleic Acid Test (NAT): 10 to 33 days after exposure

There is no HIV test that can detect HIV immediately after infection. If you think you’ve been exposed to HIV, in the last 72 hours, talk to your health care provider about post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), right away.

How do I know if I have HIV? 

There is no way of truly knowing that you have HIV, however, if you identify yourself within any of the risk factors listed above, and begin to experience flu-like symptoms, you should take a test as soon as possible. 

What should I do if I am experiencing the symptoms of HIV? 

If you are experiencing the symptoms of HIV: 

  • Talk to your healthcare provider as soon as possible. 
  • Get tested as soon as possible. 
  • Do not have sex with others until you receive your test results. 
  • Try to remain calm until you have all of the answers you need. 
  • Remember that you are doing the right thing by getting tested. 

Written by Hannah Kingston on March 5,  2021

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