The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is a lentivirus that causes HIV infection and over time acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS is a condition in humans in which progressive failure of the immune system leads to life-threatening infections and cancers to thrive. People infected with HIV generally live for 9 – 11 years, depending on the type of HIV subtype.
According to WHO, about 34 to 40 million people are living with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) globally, and nearly 30% of people are living with undiagnosed HIV and are transmitting the infection unknowingly. The only way to make sure you have HIV is through the test. Everyone between the age of 13 to 64 should get tested for HIV at least once as a part of your routine healthcare to be safe.
HIV is mainly infected by having sex with multiple partners, sharing syringes and blood with people infected with HIV, and through vaginal and rectal fluids. It does not spread through direct contact such as shaking hands, sharing food or toilet seats, etc.
There are 3 stages of HIV infection.
- Acute HIV infection is the first stage that develops within 2 to 4 weeks after getting infected with HIV.
- Chronic HIV infection is the second stage in which the HIV continues to multiply in the body but at very low levels.
- Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is the final stage of infection which destroys the immune system.
If you do not get treated, the HIV infection advances in stages and gets worse over time. It completely destroys the immune system and eventually leads to AIDS. Therefore, it is very important to get diagnosed at early stages of the infection.
What is HIV testing?
HIV testing helps you know whether you are infected with HIV. It is very important to go for HIV testing because it keeps you and others safe. It can detect HIV infection, but it can’t tell how long a person has been infected with HIV.
Blood tests are the standard tests to diagnose HIV. The body makes antibodies in response to HIV infection which can be detected through blood tests. But these tests cannot detect HIV in blood soon after the infection because it takes time (generally 2 to 8 weeks, even 6 months) for your body to produce these antibodies. The 7 main tests you need to know about HIV are as detailed below:
In standard tests, a sample of your blood is drawn and sent to a lab for testing. In some tests, urine or oral fluids are also used to screen for the presence of antibodies.
Antibody screening test
This is the common HIV test. The antibody screening test or “immunoassay” test is performed to detect the antibodies that your body produces against HIV. This test is performed using blood or sometimes oral fluids. It is conducted in a lab or as a rapid test at the testing site. The rapid tests give the results within 30 minutes and are as accurate as standard tests.
These tests detect HIV up to 20 days earlier than the standard tests. HIV antigens (a part of the virus) that show up in 2 to 4 weeks of infection are checked in this test. The antibodies are also tested. Only blood, not oral fluids are used to detect HIV antigens/antibodies in this test.
Rapid antigen/antibody test
This is an immunoassay used for screening the infection. It gives quick results in 20 minutes. A blood sample or oral fluid is used to look for the antibodies against HIV. If the rapid test is conducted during window period (period after exposure to the virus and before the test finds antibodies), the test may give a negative result.
You should always go for a follow-up test if the immunoassay tests are positive.
ELISA stands for enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay that uses a solid-phase enzyme immunoassay to detect the presence of antigens in the sample. Even if the test shows a negative result, you should be tested again in one to three months because it may be a window period. If the ELISA test is positive, you should go for the Western blot test, which is a very sensitive blood test used to confirm the diagnosis.
Viral Load Test
This test measures the amount of HIV in the blood. This test is generally used to monitor treatment progress or to detect early infection.
You can also test for HIV infection at home using home collection kits. However, you should go for further tests if you get positive for the home tests to confirm the infection. These tests are approved by U.S FDA and are easily available in the market. There are two home HIV tests:
The Home Access HIV-1 Test System
This system involves pricking your finger to collect a blood sample and sending the sample to a licensed laboratory. If the test is positive, you should go for a follow-up test immediately. The test is proven to be 99.9% accurate.
The OraQuick In-Home HIV Test
This test provides rapid results at home. The test involves swabbing your mouth for an oral fluid sample and using the kit to test it. The results will be available within 20 minutes. You need a follow-up test if you test positive.
If you think you might have been exposed to HIV and are at risk of developing HIV, then get tested as soon as possible. Although the result of being diagnosed with HIV can be scary, you can still live a long and full life with HIV if you start treatment at the early stage. Also, an early diagnosis helps you take precautions so that you don’t pass the infection to others.