What Is HIV?
According to HIV.gov, human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, targets the body’s immune system. The virus affects CD4 cells, also known as T cells, which serve as the body’s defense mechanism against harmful infections. As HIV becomes more aggressive, the immune system becomes dangerously weak, and the body can longer protect itself against diseases and infections. Once people become infected with HIV, they have it for the rest of their lives. Though no cure exists for HIV, the virus can be kept under control through daily medicinal treatment known as antiretroviral therapy. If HIV goes untreated, it can develop into much more dangerous stages and eventually leave a person infected with acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. HIV is a highly communicable disease, meaning that the virus can be transmitted from one person to another.
The Importance of HIV Testing
Testing for HIV determines whether the body is infected with the virus. If the virus is present, treatment needs to begin immediately before the disease progresses into worse stages or is transmitted to others. Many people with HIV may be unaware that they have the virus at all, due to the stage of HIV infection known as clinical latency.
The clinical latency stage follows the acute infection stage of HIV, during which the immune system experiences seemingly normal flu-like symptoms. Once a person enters the clinical latency stage, the virus continues to reproduce rapidly throughout the body even though the patient no longer experiences symptoms. This stage can last over 10 years, and during this time, the risk of transmitting the virus to others is incredibly high. Just because no symptoms are being experienced does not mean the virus isn’t causing slow devastation to the immune system.
Testing for HIV will reveal whether the virus is present. If so, antiretroviral therapy treatment can begin right away before the disease spreads to others or develops into the deadly stages of AIDS.
The HIV Test
CDC.gov advises that people between age 13 and 64 should get tested for HIV. People with lifestyles that are considered to be risk factors are advised to get tested for HIV at least once annually. Some of these risk factors include a history of injecting drugs via needles, sharing needles, sexual activity with an HIV-positive partner, diagnosis for hepatitis or tuberculosis, and male homosexual activity. Even if someone’s lifestyle is not considered to include typical risk factors, an HIV test should be taken due to how easily the virus can be transmitted.
Three types of tests can be taken to determine the presence of HIV. Antibody testing is the most common form of HIV testing. The body produces antibodies to defend itself when it becomes infected with the virus. Antibody testing tests blood or oral fluid to detect the antibodies in the system and determines whether HIV is present.
Fourth-generation HIV testing is done to detect the presence of the HIV-attacking antibodies, as well as the immune system-attacking HIV antigens. These antigens, known as p24 antigens, appear from the virus and trigger the body’s defensive production of antibodies. Detecting the p24 antigens in bodily fluids reveals the presence of HIV.
A nucleic acid test is the third common form of HIV testing. Nucleic acid testing is done to detect the virus in the blood in most high risk factor cases. The nucleic acid test is often done together with other forms of HIV screening once other tests have suggested the presence of HIV. Due to differences in lifestyles, every person may require different forms of HIV testing to yield the most accurate results.
Multiple measures can be taken to prevent becoming infected with HIV. Visit our article, “5 Frequently Asked Questions About HIV Vaccination,” to learn more about HIV vaccinations and other preventative measures.
Together We Can Cure HIV
In honor of National HIV Testing Day on June 27, the HIV.gov website provides an HIV Sites & Care Services Locator to help people locate HIV testing facilities and services in their area. HIV.gov is spreading awareness about the importance of HIV testing through informational resources that circulate around “Test Your Way. Do It Today,” the theme of National HIV Testing Day 2017. Downloads and videos are available to educate people about HIV testing and the best lifestyle practices for HIV prevention. Through posting on social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, you can join HIV.gov in the effort to spread the word about the dangers of HIV and the importance of HIV testing.