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June 13, 2022 | Blood Tests

What is HIV?

Woman preparing for a blood draw

While you’re busy working, traveling, enjoying hobbies, and more, your immune system is working behind the scenes to keep you safe. The immune system is a “complex network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to help the body fight infections and other diseases”1. Sometimes there can be problems with the immune system, like reacting to a “threat” that isn’t really there, which is what happens to allergy sufferers. Additionally, there are viruses that can impact and weaken the immune system. One of the most common in this scenario is human immunodeficiency virus, commonly known as HIV.

What is HIV?

HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system. If left untreated, HIV can turn into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) which leaves the immune system incredibly vulnerable2. Because of the attack on the immune system, people with HIV are more vulnerable to bacteria, germs, and other infections getting into their bodies.

There are three stages of HIV: acute HIV infection, chronic HIV infection, and AIDS. Due to the advancements in medicine, progression to step 3 (AIDS) is less common today than in earlier days of HIV. However, without proper treatment, people with AIDS typically survive about three years2.

How is HIV transmitted?

HIV is transmitted via the exchange of bodily fluids from an infected person in the form of3:

  • Blood
  • Breast milk
  • Semen
  • Vaginal secretions

Most commonly, HIV is spread through unprotected sexual intercourse and sharing injection drug equipment (ex: drug needles)4. You only catch HIV from somebody who is already infected and then passes the virus to you through one of the above methods. HIV does not spread through ordinary day-to-day contact such as kissing, hugging, shaking hands, or sharing personal objects, food or water3.

Who is at risk for contracting HIV?

HIV can affect anyone regardless of sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, gender, age, or where they live5. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), gay and bisexual men are most disproportionally affected by HIV in the United States6. Additionally, the CDC reported that HIV is more common among younger gay and bisexual men (ages 25-34) and African American and Latino gay and bisexual men. The reason why this group of men is more at risk for HIV is that anal sex is the highest risk behavior for contracting HIV5.

What are the symptoms of HIV?

Some people with HIV experience flu-like symptoms within two to four weeks from infection. The symptoms may last for a few days, or a few weeks and could include2:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Rash
  • Night sweats
  • Muscle ache
  • Sore throat
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Mouth ulcers

It’s important to note that these symptoms do not mean you have HIV. Many of these symptoms overlap with other illnesses including the common cold, the flu, or COVID-19. In order to confirm if you have HIV, proper testing is required.

What are the blood tests for HIV?

There are three types of blood tests for HIV6:

  • Nucleic acid test (NAT). The test can either tell if you have HIV or tell how much virus is present in your blood (known as an HIV viral load test). This NAT can detect HIV sooner than other types of tests, but it’s very expensive and not routinely used for screening individuals unless they recently had a high-risk exposure or a possible exposure and have early symptoms of HIV infection.
  • Antigen/antibody test. This test measures both HIV antibodies and antigens. Antibodies are produced by your immune system when you’re exposed to viruses like HIV. Antigens are foreign substances that cause your immune system to activate.
  • Antibody tests. This test only looks for antibodies to HIV in your blood or oral fluid.

You might be wondering how soon HIV can be detected by a simple blood test. Unfortunately, no HIV tests will be able to detect HIV immediately after infection. Some test results can take up to 90 days to detect HIV6.

  • A nucleic acid test (NAT) can usually tell you if you have HIV infection 10 to 33 days after an exposure.
  • An antigen/antibody test performed by a laboratory on blood from a vein can usually detect HIV infection 18 to 45 days after an exposure. Antigen/ antibody tests done with blood from a finger prick can take longer to detect HIV (18 to 90 days after an exposure).
  • Antibody tests can take 23 to 90 days to detect HIV infection after an exposure. Most rapid tests and self-tests are antibody tests. In general, antibody tests that use blood from a vein can detect HIV sooner after infection than tests done with blood from a finger prick or with oral fluid.

HIV Testing Near You

HIV testing is a critical tool in ending the HIV epidemic. In fact, National HIV Testing Day is on June 27th and the theme for this year is “HIV Testing is Self-Care”7. The CDC recommends that everybody between the ages of 13-64 get tested for HIV at least once as part of routine healthcare8.

To make blood draws for HIV tests more comfortable, Scarlet® can meet you where you are to collect a sample for testing. Not only can you be in more comfortable surroundings for your Scarlet blood draw, but if you are worried about a weakened immune system, staying home may keep you safer.



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