URL of this page: https://medlineplus.gov/lab-tests/hiv-viral-load/

HIV Viral Load

What is an HIV Viral Load?

An HIV viral load is a blood test that measures the amount of HIV in your blood. HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. HIV is a virus that attacks and destroys cells in the immune system. These cells protect your body against viruses, bacteria, and other disease-causing germs. If you lose too many immune cells, your body will have trouble fighting off infections and other diseases.

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). HIV and AIDS are often used to describe the same disease. But most people with HIV don't have AIDS. People with AIDS have an extremely low number of immune cells and are at risk for life-threatening illnesses, including dangerous infections, a severe type of pneumonia, and certain cancers, including Kaposi sarcoma.

If you have HIV, you can take medicines to protect your immune system, and they may prevent you from getting AIDS.

Other names: nucleic acid testing, NAT, nucleic acid amplification test, NAAT, HIV PCR, RNA Test, HIV quantification

What is it used for?

An HIV viral load test may be used to:

  • Check how well your HIV medicines are working
  • Monitor any changes in your HIV infection
  • Diagnose HIV if you think you've been recently infected

An HIV viral load is an expensive test and is mostly used when a quick result is needed. Other less expensive types of tests are used more often for diagnosing HIV.

Why do I need an HIV viral load?

Your health care provider may order an HIV viral load when you are first diagnosed with HIV. This initial measurement helps your provider measure how your condition changes over time. You will probably be tested again every three to four months to see if your viral levels have changed since your first test. If you are being treated for HIV, your health care provider may order regular viral load tests to see how well your medicines are working.

You may also need an HIV viral load if you think you may have been recently infected. HIV is mainly spread through sexual contact and blood. (It can also be transmitted from mother to child during birth and through breast milk.) You may be at higher risk of infection if you:

  • Are a man that has had sex with another man
  • Have had sex with an HIV-infected partner
  • Have had multiple sex partners
  • Have injected drugs, such as heroin, or shared drug needles with someone else

An HIV viral load can find HIV in your blood within days after you've been infected. Other tests can take several weeks or months to show an infection. During that time, you could infect someone else without knowing it. An HIV viral load gives you results sooner, so you can avoid spreading the disease.

What happens during an HIV viral load?

A health care professional will take a blood sample from a vein in your arm, using a small needle. After the needle is inserted, a small amount of blood will be collected into a test tube or vial. You may feel a little sting when the needle goes in or out. This usually takes less than five minutes.

Will I need to do anything to prepare for the test?

You don't need any special preparations for an HIV viral load. But if you are getting this test to find out if you are infected with HIV, you should talk with a counselor before or after your test so you can better understand the results and your treatment options.

Are there any risks to the test?

There is very little risk to having a blood test. You may have slight pain or bruising at the spot where the needle was put in, but most symptoms go away quickly.

What do the results mean?

Below is a list of typical results. Your results may vary depending on your health and even the lab used for testing.

  • A normal result means no HIV was found in your blood, and you are not infected.
  • A low viral load means the virus is not very active and probably means your HIV treatment is working.
  • A high viral load means the virus is more active and your treatment is not working well. The higher the viral load, the more risk you have for problems and diseases related to a weak immune system. It may also mean you are at higher risk for developing AIDS. If your results show a high viral load, your health care provider will probably make changes in your treatment plan.

If you have questions about your results, talk to your health care provider.

Is there anything else I need to know about an HIV viral load?

While there is no cure for HIV, there are better treatments available now than in the past. Today, people with HIV are living longer, with a better quality of life than ever before. If you are living with HIV, it's important to see your health care provider regularly.

References

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  2. AIDSinfo [Internet]. Rockville (MD): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; HIV Overview: HIV Testing [updated 2017 Dec 4; cited 2017 Dec 4]; [about 3 screens]. Available from: https://aidsinfo.nih.gov/understanding-hiv-aids/fact-sheets/19/47/hiv-testing
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Internet]. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; About HIV/AIDS [updated 2017 May 30; cited 2017 Dec 4]; [about 3 screens]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/whatishiv.html
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Internet]. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Living with HIV [updated 2017 Aug 22; cited 2017 Dec 4]; [about 10 screens]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/livingwithhiv/index.html
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [Internet]. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Testing [updated 2017 Sep 14; cited 2017 Dec 4]; [about 7 screens]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/testing.html
  6. Johns Hopkins Medicine [Internet]. Johns Hopkins Medicine; Health Library: HIV and AIDS [cited 2017 Dec 4]; [about 3 screens]. Available from: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/adult/infectious_diseases/hiv_and_aids_85,P00617
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  9. Merck Manual Consumer Version [Internet]. Kenilworth (NJ): Merck & Co., Inc.; c2017. Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Infection [cited 2017 Dec 4]; [about 3 screens]. Available from: http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/infections/human-immunodeficiency-virus-hiv-infection/human-immunodeficiency-virus-hiv-infection
  10. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; Blood Tests; [cited 2018 Feb 8]; [about 3 screens]. Available from: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/blood-tests
  11. University of Rochester Medical Center [Internet]. Rochester (NY): University of Rochester Medical Center; c2017. Health Encyclopedia: HIV Viral Load [cited 2017 Dec 4]; [about 2 screens]. Available from: https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=167&contentid;=hiv_viral_load
  12. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs [Internet]. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; What is AIDS? [updated 2016 Aug 9; cited 2017 Dec 4]; [about 4 screens]. Available from: https://www.hiv.va.gov/patient/basics/what-is-AIDS.asp
  13. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs [Internet]. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; What is HIV? [updated 2016 Aug 9; cited 2017 Dec 4]; [about 4 screens]. Available from: https://www.hiv.va.gov/patient/basics/what-is-HIV.asp
  14. UW Health [Internet]. Madison (WI): University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority; c2017. HIV Viral Load Measurement: Results [updated 2017 Mar 15; cited 2017 Dec 4]; [about 7 screens]. Available from: https://www.uwhealth.org/health/topic/medicaltest/hiv-viral-load-measurement/tu6396.html#tu6403
  15. UW Health [Internet]. Madison (WI): University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority; c2017. HIV Viral Load Measurement: Test Overview [updated 2017 Mar 15; cited 2017 Dec 4]; [about 2 screens]. Available from: https://www.uwhealth.org/health/topic/medicaltest/hiv-viral-load-measurement/tu6396.html
  16. UW Health [Internet]. Madison (WI): University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority; c2017. HIV Viral Load Measurement: What To Think About [updated 2017 Mar 15; cited 2017 Dec 4]; [about 10 screens]. Available from: https://www.uwhealth.org/health/topic/medicaltest/hiv-viral-load-measurement/tu6396.html#tu6406
  17. UW Health [Internet]. Madison (WI): University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics Authority; c2017. HIV Viral Load Measurement: Why It Is Done [updated 2017 Mar 15; cited 2017 Dec 4]; [about 3 screens]. Available from: https://www.uwhealth.org/health/topic/medicaltest/hiv-viral-load-measurement/tu6396.html#tu6398

The medical information provided is for informational purposes only, and is not to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact your health care provider with questions you may have regarding medical conditions or the interpretation of test results.

In the event of a medical emergency, call 911 immediately.